STEELEYE SPAN - Est’d. 1969
Another significant anniversary in the annals of folk-rock is marked with this release. However, it’s no easy-option retro-glancing self-congratulation exercise but instead a confident set of all-new material that both celebrates and consolidates the Steeleye brand’s rebirth through its enhanced current seven-piece line-up. Only Maddy Prior remains from the early Span incarnations, with drummer Liam Genockey the next most long-serving, but the more recent influx of newer members has done nothing to dilute the robust Steeleye identity. Of course, Maddy herself remains resplendent, still soaring aloft albeit in a deeper, more earthy register nowadays.
And yet, you barely need to proceed more than a few bars into opening track, Harvest, to proclaim you couldn’t be anywhere else but on Planet Steeleye! And that’s both comforting and invigorating. Archetypal merry stompalong jiggery with powerhouse drive, rollicking memorable chorus and a bite to the lyrics, taking on tradition and beating it at its own game. But as ever Steeleye prove more than a one-trick pony with the album’s subsequent parade showing a mastery of different stylings and treatments. Highlights include an ingeniously different cover of Dave Goulder’s January Man that carries a weary Steptoe-esque banjo tread, and Cruel Ship’s Carpenter which is adorned with some luxurious prog-style instrumental work including Jessie May’s swooning violin. Closest to the approved boogie-meets-Silly-Sisters mode is Domestic, a fun portmanteau of two songs addressing male inadequacies!
Naturally, the album also includes a healthy quotient of classic ‘blockbuster ballads’ – a storming account of Child 29 (The Boy And The Mantle) which is given added ‘courtly-cred’ by guest Sophie Yates’ rockin’ harpsichord; this is followed by the doomy shapeshifting epic, Mackerel Of The Sea. In contrast, Old Matron kicks off with a fleet-footed gait redolent of Tull-ish Songsfromthewoodery (they even co-opt Ian A for a tripping flute part), although its simplicity is undercut by some strange layered vocal effects. The unadorned vocal strength of this Steeleye line-up best comes to the fore however on an intricately harmonised group arrangement of Reclaimed, Rose-Ellen Kemp’s salutary warning to humankind, returning the CD to the a cappella mode with which its rich Harvest began. Neat. So – good for another 50 years then!…
This review appeared in Issue 130 of The Living Tradition magazine