In an age when it is not uncommon for an artist to take five years to follow up a successful album, the creativity that Steeleye Span displayed in their early years is still astonishing. In the decade between their debut and 1980’s Sails Of Silver, they released twelve records alongside touring the world and enjoying a string of hits. Now with their 50th anniversary fast approaching, the band have come close to matching that work rate – readying themselves for the release of Dodgy Bastards, their eighth album in twelve years.
Such inspiration has come both from the individuals involved (Steeleye mainstays Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp and Liam Genockey alongside Jessie May Smart, Andrew Sinclair and Julian Littman in the current line-up) and the source material. Having set the writings of the late Terry Pratchett to music on the successful Wintersmith album and revisited their own past on 2015’s Catch Up, this latest outing finds them returning to the folk tales and characters that have always been at the heart of the Steeleye sound.
Dodgy Bastards draws on the work of 19th century American scholar Francis James Child and his collection of English and Scottish Ballads. The album is appropriately titled, containing stories of murder, religion, incest, skulls, honour killings and tormented spirits – the perfect subject material for Steeleye Span’s dark take on the music of the British Isles.
Such epic tales require a suitable musical backdrop and the record is firmly in the band’s classic musical mould. ‘Brown Robyn’s Confession’ sets the tone but with a new twist, violinist Jessie May Smart taking the lead vocal before the distinct tones of Maddy Prior join her on the striking chorus. Elsewhere each member plays their part, allowing the music to explore a variety of different paths as the songs ebb and flow in keeping with their characters and events – with Prior and Littman even adding a spoken word / rap element to long time band favourite ‘Boys Of Bedlam’.
With a career that has taken in an astounding six decades, Steeleye Span is not just a legendary name in British music but also a link to the classic days of rock and folk music. Contemporaries of the likes of Led Zeppelin and Fairport Convention, they have gone on to change the face of folk music forever, taking it from small clubs and festivals into the world of chart topping albums and international tours.
Part of that incredible story has been the individuals that have contributed to the band’s history. Steeleye Span has provided a home for a long list of some of the world’s finest musicians. The current line up of Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp, Liam Genockey, Julian Littman, Pete Zorn and Jessie May Smart along with older names such as Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Tim Harries, Bob Johnson and most recently Peter Knight have all woven their heraldry into the historical fabric of the folk-rock tapestry.
Paul Johnson and I recently caught up with current band members Maddy Prior, Julian Littman, Peter Zorn and Jessie May Smart during the 45th Anniversary Tour at G-Live in Guildford to celebrate this 45 year landmark. Click the play button below to listen to the interview.
The video below celebrates the bands most recent album Wintersmith which was recorded in collaboration with Sir Terry Pratchett at the end of 2013. The album is based on Pratchett’s Wintersmith novel, which subject matter is completely appropriate for Steeleye, in its tales of ancient rituals and secret folk dances that perfectly complement their previous work whilst taking the band off again in a new and exciting prog-rock direction.
I suppose it must be at least 20 years since I saw a live performance (I believe it was The Hope & Anchor in Islington) by Charlie Dore. Things haven’t changed much in as much that I think she’s still one of this country’s finest singer/songwriters including previous hits “Pilot Of The Airwaves” and Jimmy Nail’s “Aint No Doubt”. Coming from a lady who is versed in the arts of both music and theatre her lyrics are wordy and enjoyable and, at the end of the day set out to ‘entertain’…if that’s not too dirty a word? If proof were needed then check out “A Man Walks Into A Bar” where the song makes you listen by bringing you in on the joke. This may not be a laugh out loud set-piece but by its very nature the title draws your attention to what lies beneath the headline.
A bit like a Derrin Brown inspired Saatchi & Saatchi subliminal advert these songs pack a powerful punch that will linger long after the last syllable has been uttered. It’s this engaging skill as a songwriter that will bring wry smiles and knowing nods to their subject matter including difficult step-children “Milk Teeth” and the infidelity inspired hot club jazz of “His Wife” that makes the listener feel like an investor in a magical ‘words factory’. A round of applause must also go to Dore’s sterling band of musicians including multi-instrumentalist Julian Littman (now also a member of Steeleye Span), Dudley Phillips (double bass) and strings maestro Jake Walker. This is the real deal for those that like their ‘folk’ roots with a little more edge.