Steeleye Span
The Stables, Wavendon, Milton Keynes, England
(22 October 2000)

As Gay Woods announced towards the end of the show, "It's 2000. This is Steeleye Span today." The band's current line-up -- Tim Harries (electric guitar, keyboards, vocals), folk stalwart Dave Mattacks (drums) and long-time Steeleye members Peter Knight (violin, keyboards, vocals), Rick Kemp (bass guitar, vocals) and Gay Woods (vocals, percussion), who returned to the band in 1997 after quite some time away -- proved that Steeleye Span is just as fun, rollicking and effective as ever.

The band's two-hour gig, divided into two sets, reflected a mix of older songs interspersed with features from Bedlam Born, Steeleye's recent release. The performance was sometimes avant-garde yet quintessential Steeleye, what with not only older numbers juxtapositioned with new ones, but also with experimental styles joining the "traditional" Steeleye folk-rock sound.

For example, there was the punkish Steeleye with the Victorian-era "Staring Robin," a track recently recorded yet deemed by the record label too disturbing for Bedlam Born, despite the lyrics' thematic link to the CD's title. The song's unexpected, yet delightful, musical cacophony allowed Woods to dance wildly as the men's instrumental section blended folk-rock with a slight heavy metal sound.

The band also rocked on another new song, "John of Ditchford," a number, as Harries explained, "about the danger of seeking sanctuary in the church in the 14th century if you have a bit of blood on your hands." Harries sang lead vocals as a wild and raucous opening with Knight's violin setting the mood.

A more gothic-style Steeleye, featuring a rather dramatic synthesizer, came on board with "Beyond the Dreaming Place" and "I See His Blood on the Rose." "Beyond the Dreaming Place," co-written by Knight and Woods, established a pop-rock feel a little reminiscent of Renaissance and allowed Woods to show off her high register. Despite keyboards that simply were too loud, the song worked.

Woods explained that she'd known the first four lines of Joseph Plunkett's poem "I See His Blood on the Rose" for years, but she had to have library archivists in the Irish midlands locate Plunkett's two books in order to learn the entire poem. (She informed the audience that Plunkett died young in Dublin during the 1916 Rising.) She noted that while Plunkett's writing tended to have a Christian focus, his poetry also involved nature gods, Pan, etc.

Tim Harries' moody synthesizer later blended with Mattacks' dramatic drumbeats and Knight's seagull-like effects on his violin to create a rather theatrical version of "The White Cliffs of Dover" that perhaps echoed the war mood that originally inspired the song.

Even more traditional pieces, such as "The Water is Wide," received a "nontraditional" treatment. It began with an almost interpretive/experimental jazz feel. Knight's violin would hit its high range then slow down only to lead to yet another fast frenzy, and Woods' half-recitation/half-singing gradually segued into the well-known traditional song. Even then, Knight temporarily discarded his bow and plucked the violin instead; he performed the melody and ad-libbed as if he were playing an oboe or saxophone while holding the violin back against his neck and stretching his head far back.

"Erin," a traditional song "about the old sod" (told from the point of view of the Irish in America), led to an immediate segue into Irish dance music and lyrics from another song as Woods sang "She loved her husband clearly but another one just as well." Lines from "The Devil and the Farmer's Wife" closed the fun "Old Maid from the Garrett."

"The Bonny Birdy," a Scottish ballad akin to "Matty Groves" and "Little Musgrave," was introduced by Woods as "now back to normal." On one hand, it did seem like "normal" Steeleye. The song, from their 1999 Harkstow Grange album, indeed is a long, traditional ballad, and its treatment that night summoned forth memories of Fairport Convention's take on "Tam Lin" in that the music truly set an evocative and haunted mood and was much more than mere musical accompaniment. Wood's desperate, sad, drawn-out syllables on her backing vocals (Knight played keyboards and sang lead) only added to the song's effectiveness. Her nicely drawn out final notes added to Mattacks' catastrophic drumbeats and seemed to beckon the song's tragic end.

The song that best demonstrated the essence of Steeleye Span -- the quintessential Steeleye, however, was "Thomas the Rhymer." At one point, all but Mattacks stood behind downstage microphones and sang in unison on this traditional song about a mortal man who spent seven years in Elfland. Woods became the storyteller rather than "just" the lead singer as she stood at the edge of the stage and conversationally took on the roles of Thomas and the Queen of Elfland.

All shows must come to a close, and Steeleye's encore, their usual closing song, the traditional "All Around My Hat," once again brought all but Mattacks to the downstage microphones. Woods' approach as lead singer was to take on a character that seemed almost comical, sometimes cynical, and occasionally quite innocent. "Yes, it's the hate one," Woods said in way of introduction as she invited the audience to sing along. "You all know it," she said with a laugh. (Indeed, everyone did seem to know it. For the most part, the audience seemed "older," with quite a few grey hairs in view. However, it was re-assuring to see teenagers sitting with their grey-headed parents, and a twenty-something man stood by an exit and headbanged his way through the entire concert.)

As Knight's electric violin picked up the after the song's final chorus, Woods danced her way offstage and gave the guys time for a quick instrumental showcase.

It's 2000, and Steeleye Span indeed has evolved over the past couple of decades. The line-up has changed; members have come and gone (and returned) over the years, but the spirit and joy definitely is still there.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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