This is one of those situations that throw into sharp relief the difficulties of writing live reviews. Lahri, one of our US reviewers, went to one of the American dates on the current tour and found it a significantly less than satisfying experience. Just a few days later I went to one of the UK dates at the Daneside Theatre, Congleton and was knocked out by the gig.
Of course it goes without saying that all of us on Green Man Review are as honest and objective as possible when writing reviews. Lahri and I are both long time fans of Steeleye Span and we saw what should have been very similar shows, yet our impressions and experiences were quite different. It demonstrates just how easily the conditions of a live gig, the venue, the audience, the sound quality, the surroundings, our expectations and inevitable variability in a band’s live performance can literally make all the difference between a disappointment and the best gig in months.
I nearly didn’t go to the Congleton gig at all. The last couple of times I saw Steeleye Span live I found the gigs were OK, they would have to be with such top rank professional musicians and such a range of first class material, but somehow both missed having the spark that would have made them great. The sound hadn’t been the best, Peter Knight looked as though he had left his enthusiasm backstage, Maddy seemed disinterested, the audiences had been noisy. However, faced with a wet Sunday evening at home with the TV or Steeleye Span just 10 miles up the road I could hardly stay home and still hold my head up as a folk rock fan! But I had virtually no preconceived ideas at all about what to expect and I had not even heard any of the new CD material.
The Daneside Theatre in Congleton is fairly small, it seats about 300 in quite steeply banked seating and the auditorium is almost square. Even the back row is close enough to see the stage easily, with excellent clear sight lines from everywhere in the theatre even if you get the seat behind the six footer with big hair. Acoustics are also good, with the speakers just to the front of the stage they can be seen and heard clearly without serious echo and without the sound engineer having to drive the volume through the roof. Some people near the front commented afterwards it was rather loud and harsh but further back the sound was very good.
It appears that the set list was very similar to the earlier US dates described by Lahri so I shan’t go through that in detail. The interesting question is why did I have such a different experience and enjoy the gig so much? Certainly the venue and sound were good, which is important, but on the other hand much of the material was totally new to me, and it’s always harder to assimilate new material.
I think the first important factor is one of expectations. This band is not the old, comfortable slippers by the fireside Steeleye Span, and the show avoided virtually all the best known and most commercial Steeleye Span material from their ‘classic’ period. I know some people in the audience at Congleton were surprised that so little of their well known and more popular past material was included. ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ was there, but that has always been a more rock based song. ‘All Around my Hat’ did get an airing as part of the encore but I felt it was a rather tongue in cheek nod to the band’s history and audience expectations rather than anything the new band were particularly interested in. A much more meaningful (to me) bit of nostalgia occurred at the end of the first set when Peter Knight and Rick Kemp, ably abetted by Dave Mattacks, led a stunning arrangement of ‘Robbery with Violins’. It was quite obvious that the primary reason they played it was for their own enjoyment, but when such excellent musicians get together and drive one another with their enthusiasm the result is almost hypnotic. They could easily have stretched it to 10 or 15 minutes, or even have free-formed around it for much of the set and it would still have been mesmerizing.
This sort of enthusiasm, and the positive dynamic interplay between the band members, was the thing that struck me most forcibly. Dave Mattacks and Rick Kemp provided a tremendously powerful and effective rhythm section. They were positioned close on stage and it was easy to see their mutual respect for one another as musicians and their enjoyment in playing together. This was tighter and rockier, and with a more complex rhythmic background, than anything I have heard from Steeleye Span in years.
Another factor which I enjoyed was the new stage dynamics of the band. Much as I like and admire Maddy Prior, (and don’t get me wrong I do very much, she is a wonderful performer!) Steeleye Span was in a sense always her band. She was very much the figurehead and took centre stage. Gay Woods does not take centre stage except when required, indeed a couple of times she left the stage completely. This made it possible for Peter Knight and Tim Harries to step into the limelight and take the lead. I can say in all honesty that I have never seen Peter Knight so animated and in such good humour with his introductions and lead vocals on John of Ditchford and Bonny Bird. He was clearly enjoying himself! I can sympathize with Lahri’s suggestion that he set himself up in his own band with Rick Kemp and Dave Mattacks. But that’s exactly what I saw and heard happening during parts of the set, and it’s one of the reasons I like the new band dynamics, because it allowed this to happen.
Gay Woods is a very different style of singer than Maddy Prior. I rather like Lahri’s image of ‘bar room renditions’ but maybe I’m more of a bar room sort of music lover? Certainly Gay can easily adopt a much more aggressive vocal style when the song demands it, but generally she is much more ‘laid back’. With an almost laconic quiet sense of humour to her introductions, and what could almost be a studied contempt of the usual conventions about being a female lead singer. She doesn’t have the seemingly effortless, lilting and flowing voice that Maddy Prior had in her heyday with Steeleye. But in its place Gay has a tremendous vitality, power, immediacy and lack of pretentiousness, which is much more in keeping with the new material and the sound the band have now. Gay also uses her voice less, which makes for maximum impact when she does take a powerful lead. Oddly the vision of a punk version of Stevie Nicks came to mind when I closed my eyes and listened. As for the bodhran, well all I can say is that it worked well for me. Most of the new material starts quieter and builds, and the bodhran introduced some complex and satisfying cross rhythms to the mix. It would however be easy to understand how the slightest sloppiness or a poor sound system would spoil the effect, so maybe this is a high risk musical maneuver.
My only serious doubts (and a point of agreement between Lahri and myself) were about the inclusion of ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, although I rather like the addition of an intro from ‘There will always be an England’. It seems that we are having a slight reaction against Celtic and world music over here with a growing revival of English and other regional roots music. The Albion band have been doing it for years of course but it is coming to the fore with younger bands like Little Johnny England deliberately pushing English music and the Blue Horses with their brand of Welsh folk rock. I think the new Steeleye Span have as much or more in common with some of these younger bands than with the Steeleye Span of old.
Sometime around the ’80s I had begun to think that Steeleye were coasting. No more! This band are lively, vibrant and distinctly noisy. But basically for me it comes down to that indefinable ‘spark’. This was not the Steeleye Span of old, nor are they a ‘pale imitation’ of the old band going through the motions of their ‘greatest hits’. Despite the band members being known to Steeleye fans this is far more like a new band. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of ‘new’ then think back to the original Steeleye Span of the early 70’s, when they were pushing the boundaries of folk music in new directions. Now bring that idea forward 30 years and revitalised for the new century. They have new material, a different sound, and completely different dynamics. At Congleton they had the level of musicianship that only comes with experience but combined with the drive, energy and enthusiasm of a much younger band. I found it a tremendously exiting gig.
Oh yes, I mustn’t forget my other point of agreement with Lahri. The new album Bedlam Born is excellent, read his album review.
(UK October 8th 2000)