Steeleye Span played the Great American Music Hall July 16th, 2015. They are one of those bands that never made it into my collection, though I have friends that are fans, and have heard some of their influential British folk and roots music over the last 45 years. In fact Steeleye Span has been held in high regard internationally for decades, beginning with their debut album in 1970, and they have a couple of hit singles and three Top 40 albums to show for it. I’ve always been a bit more attracted by the renaissance era and progressive influences found in groups like Gryphon, but am learning to appreciate folk and roots music as time passes. What we discovered at the show last week was a band that’s held up exceptionally well, as the current lineup is able to put across their brand of folk-rock with an uplifting and engaging show.
Long time founding member Maddy Prior led the procession with a voice that is undiminished by time. She shared stories and historical perspective between the tracks, most of which were traditional songs and ballads. The band opened with “Blackleg Miner,” a track originating from Northumberland that enjoyed a brief revival in 1986 after a miner’s strike in the region. Of this song and it’s meaning, Maddy added “If you don’t pay your workers they will turn around and bite you in the bum!” Later in the first half of the set, “I Live Not Where I Love” showed off Maddy’s still pliant clear tones. Introducing the piece, she added, “This song is about true and abiding love, very deep and all-consuming love, and it disappoints me that I’ve sung this to two or three people in my head.” Other fan favorites included the hit “All Around My Hat” which led to an audience sing-along and ended the first of two sets. The encore was an “a capella” version of “Somewhere Along The Road.”
The band’s lineup has changed frequently over the years, and Maddy was the only founding member on board for this latest tour. The rest of the group consisted of Julian Littman (guitars, vocals), Liam Genockey (drums) and amazing violinist Jessie May Smart, who played beautifully and added vocal harmonies throughout. Alex Kemp, Maddy’s son was intended to play bass instead of his father Rick Kemp, but lacked the paperwork to make it past border control for their US dates and was replaced by stand in. The band was tight, and focused on playing in unison behind their multi-part vocal harmonies, so key to the performance this traditional music. While Julian stepped up a few times to play some lead solos, it was Jessie who remained the focus instrumentally, with her virtuosic playing on full display.
This was a pleasant evening of traditional music from Britain and beyond, and a feast for fans of the band that welcomed Maddy and the group with rapturous applause and undivided attention. The tour continues in the U.S. into July, then returns to Europe and the U.K. into mid-December, for all those inclined to celebrate the band and this rich musical heritage.