I have to confess, I am not hugely familiar with the work of Steeleye Span. Though I was introduced to them at a fairly early age by a hip uncle (on Unst, Shetland, of all places!), for some reason I have not really bought into their branch of the great British folk-rock tree until now. What a bloody fool I am!
This, their second album from 1971, now re-released, is a host of good things. From the first oboe-ish chant of Maddy Prior on "The Blacksmith", through Ashley Hutchings' simultaneously solid and fluid bass on "Cold Haily, Windy Night", Tim Hart's brittle guitar and Peter Knight's fiddle almost matching the feats of Swarb and Thompson on contemporary Fairport albums, and through just about everything Martin Carthy does on this album, there is a veritable feast of that folk-rock thing.
Notable, given the presence of Hutchings in the line-up of both this band and the Fairport that brought us "Liege and Lief", for a much more trad-oriented approach, specifically the absence of drums, and a complete reliance on traditional material, "Please to See the King" does, though give us plenty of rock: Carthy in particular is a revelation to me on this album. His use of electric guitar is patently the same player as on "Prince Heathen" and other early acoustic albums, but on "False Knight on the Road" in particular there's a real joie-de-vivre in the attack on the instrument. He also seems at this time to have thrown himself enthusiastically into not just the semi-modern idiom, but also the ensemble playing required in a band. He doesn't lead, though he is clearly a major force in the line-up.
The material is all strong, but I have to make special mention of "The King", one of the tunes with which I was familiar through the Span version. As a celebration of folk-rite - the killing of a wren, and displaying it to the village to signify the close of winter - it's a reminder of just how strange a people the English (ok Welsh in this instance) are. As a celebration of unaccompanied harmonic style, it's a demonstration of the daring immersion in tradition made so special by the band. Yet at the same time it feels both new (even now!) and timeless.
Having started with a confession to ignorance, I also have to say that listening to the album brought it home that these songs have actually penetrated into my consciousness over the years without me realising it. Many of them are, of course, standards in the session repertoire, but the versions of "The Blacksmith", "The Lark in the Morning", "Female Drummer" and "The King" in particular are made their own on here, and are more than welcome in their unknown familiarity. The album should be celebrated as one of the core works of the British folk revival, and it's perhaps a mark of Hutchings' creative genius that, having set Fairport and Steeleye Span on their course, he felt compelled to leave both early in their long careers.
Steeleye Span's longevity is due in no small part to their ability to interpret at a level of excellence that's difficult to equal. On this album, they set out their stall with huge expertise and a confidence which was entirely justified. I shall be delving further.
|The Small Glories: Wondrous Traveler||Roger Davies: Live At The Topic Folk Club|
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