For many, this was the first chance to see the new Millennium version of a perennial favorite of the English folk-rock era. Steeleye Span has been through numerous changes in the last few years, including the loss of long-time lead vocalist Maddy Prior to a solo career and drummer Liam Genockey to his own devices. One album; Horkstow Grange had been made with this reduced line up, and while it was a bit uneven, it proved that remaining members: Gay Woods on vocals, guitarist Bob Johnson, fiddler Peter Knight, and bassist/keyboardist Tim Harries still had enough energy to keep the band well alive.
Since then, a new CD: Bedlam Born has emerged, and it has proved to be their strongest effort in years. News came shortly before the North American tour that Johnson had finally called it a day and that Harries was trading in his bass for electric guitar and a much more vocal role in the band. The other enticing news was that Dave Mattacks, long time drummer with Fairport Convention, The Richard Thompson Band, and just about every other excellent folk rock musician to make a record in the last thirty years, had officially joined the group. This and a report that former Steeleye bassist (and Prior’s husband) Rick Kemp had been brought back into the fold, made for an evening of high expectations.
Shows at the Iron Horse Music Hall are always a lovely experience, as the club is small enough to make even a brass band seem intimate. Opening for Steeleye was the always wonderful Paperboys, a Canadian band that fuses Celtic and Latino music for an unusually wiggly and danceable, high energized set. Perhaps, then it was a bad choice of opening acts. Once the Paperboys got through their tight little set where they blasted everyone with silky fiddle, squirmy guitar and pounding bass and drums, the crowd was really warmed up for more than Steeleye Span was prepared to deliver.
Barring the obvious: youth versus experience, young and hungry versus long in the tooth, one still hoped for more from what should have been an exciting evening, from a group of musicians of as high a calibre as Steeleye Span. This was but one evening’s experience on a long tour, and the band seemed tired and not quite up to the task this evening. Might one dare say, they sounded a bit under rehearsed at times, and over rehearsed at others. Johnson often times seemed to be asleep at the wheel during his last few years with the group, but he was still consistently good.
Tim Harries opened the set with the Johnson-era arranged “Prickly Bush,” giving it some phase-shifted, fuzzed-out electric guitar and taking the lead vocal in a key that seemed a little too high for him. His approach to the electric guitar was supposed to be loose and raw (wearing it slung low, like Joe Strummer) but more than often not it came across as sloppy and undisciplined. His occasional lead guitar work usually meandered around aimlessly, and he seemed more content with making spooky sounds than producing a coherent lead voice. This is particularly strange because he has been a very inventive and melodic bass player for both Steeleye and Eddi Reader’s European touring band for years.
The other main problem was with the Gay Wood’s vocals. While on the new album she sounded refreshed and vitalized, her live presence was one of half hearted wobbling. Too often she would approach the songs as sort of a bar-room renditions of finer gems. It didn’t seem surprising that her ex-husband Terry Woods was a founding member of The Pogues, because Woods’ approach to Steeleye’s material was like boozy caricatures of their finer recorded versions. Even in places like the lovely “Erin” where a straight forward approach would have been best, Woods seemed only half committed to the song. Her playing of the bodhran with a black gloved hand was at times nothing short of embarrassing, especially with a drummer like Mattacks in the band. Likewise, her vocals on concert favorite “The Water is Wide” were rough and the tune was given a jazz influenced, mucky intro, saved only by some interesting fiddle work by Knight.
In fact, it was Peter Knight who often saved/stole the evening with his consistently superb fiddle and keyboard playing. He has been taking much more of a lead role in the vocals as well, and his songs such as “John of Ditchford” and “The Bonny Bird,” as well as his spoken introductions, were the highlights of the evening. Why he has not branched out and taken the lead in a band of his own design is confusing. The man still has so much drive and energy and it seemed at times that he was flogging a dead horse during this show. One would love to see him front a band that included Mattacks and Kemp, both of whom were under utilized in this evening.
The rest of the night’s set consisted mainly of songs from the last two albums, including “One True Love,” and a very nice a capella version of “Horkstow Grange.” When the band sang in unison, they began to sound pretty good. It is clear that Woods is a very fine backing vocalist but many times does not possess the color or power to hold down the lead.
Older material such as “All Around My Hat,” and “Thomas The Rhymer” was more successful but probably still should have been avoided. Perhaps this is the point, after all. Like Fairport Convention, the current Steeleye Span bares little resemblance to the more well known line-ups. Unlike the former band, who managed to continually explore new material and make it seem both fresh and part of the “cannon,” this Steeleye lineup seemed like a completely different band made up of members of an earlier Steeleye. The group that now tours as “Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle” has a similar problem but at least offers some hint that this is no longer the original item. Though a name change is a marketing nightmare, it would allow this incarnation of Steeleye to avoid comparisons to the band’s more illustrious past and provide a way for them to be judged on their own.
Perhaps I’m being an old curmudgeon, for I have heard many reports from the rest of the tour that the band was “great.” Indeed, the new album is a thing of beauty as well, but studio tricks can make ragged vocals sound good and overdubbing can hide a plethora of evils. This reviewer has come to expect more from a group called Steeleye Span.
(Northampton, MA, USA, September 23, 2000)