There are bands who seem to have always been there and have established a reputation that even allows them to break out into the mainstream on occasions. Steeleye Span are one such band and this year they celebrate their 50th Anniversary with a brand new record Est’d 1969. Perhaps you would expect some kind of retrospective and you might reasonably expect ‘All Around My Hat’ to appear at some stage. However as lead vocalist Maddy Prior said in a recent radio interview, with Brian Player on Wey Valley Radio, “We’ve done a couple of “Best of..” type albums and I think we’ve covered that, and I thought for our 50th we should do something new.” They certainly have produced something new, and very good, being familiar enough for people who have followed them from the start to feel at home with whilst being fresh enough to appeal to new ears.
The album is a mixture of new songs, along with the traditional, but it has that distinctive sound of Steeleye Span to it. The album opens with ‘Harvest’ and I’m sure that a lot of people, without knowing in advance who the band are, would recognise them within ten seconds. If they didn’t get it from that then after twenty seconds there would be no doubt at all in their minds. A close harmony opening, very reminiscent of ‘Gaudete’, gives way to a rollicking folk song that is going to go down a storm at festivals and live shows with a chorus you can’t help but sing along to “And we’ll roar out, roar out, roar out our harvest home.”
Of the nine track on the album it’s difficult to pick which ones to talk about because there’s such a range across it. Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’ is dominated by Maddy Prior’s voice, deeper than it was but still beautiful, and with a surprisingly detailed backing that doesn’t detract from the words.
Of the traditional songs ‘The Boy And The Mantle’ (Child Ballad 29) is an saga lasting over six minutes and demonstrates the best of prog rock folk, with a harpsichord and electric guitars adding to the effect.
Although the track listing is nine there are actually ten tracks as ‘Domestic’ has two songs in it, the second of which gratifyingly starts with “As I walked out one May morning” to show without doubt folk is the heart of Steeleye Span’s music. This also harks back to The Silly Sisters, being a song Maddy used to sing with June Tabor. The men don’t particularly come out well on either track.
Est’d 1969 has a huge range, different styles and tempos and new band members bringing their own influences but retaining the core sound in an evolution rather than rebellion. Over fifty years cycles begin to appear so Benji Kirkpatrick is now part of the band, following in father John’s footsteps. Given all the changes how is that sound maintained? Maddy Prior again “It’s very interesting having new people, young people, who don’t know a lot about traditional music…they think they know what it is before they join us and then they discover it’s much more complex than that”.
There are a couple of chances to see Steeleye Span play at festivals over the summer but then also a major tour in November and December; full details are on the website. If you can’t wait until then to get Est’d 1969, and you shouldn’t, it’s released on 28th June and is available from Park Records
Happy Birthday, Steeleye Span, 50 years young and still making a huge contribution to the folk scene. Long may it continue.
Artist’s website: http://steeleyespan.org.uk/
‘Harvest’ – live: