Steeleye Span,
Sails of Silver
(Park, 1997)

Did you become aware of your folk heritage in the 1970s? Were you a child of rock 'n' roll? If the answer is yes to both questions, you probably give thanks to the innovation of groups like Steeleye Span for your conversion.

In the 1970s groups like this married folk music to drums, electric guitars and aggressive performance. The traditionalists blanched and cried sacrilege. Little did they realize that, far from killing the old songs, these groups were giving them a kiss of life. They were bringing young people back to their heritage. Who knows what the current Celtic music industry would be if that explosion had not occurred three decades ago?

This album is an explosion of folk.

It will bring tears to the eyes of the old folkies -- not in despair but in joy as they relive that magical time. It will widen the eyes of anyone who has not experienced the folk-rock phenomenon. The Pogues and the like do a similar job, but you cannot beat the originals.

From the opening title track you will be tapping your foot and playing imaginary drums. The voice of Maddy Prior has never been better. Even taking the pace down on the beautiful "My Love," they will have you by the head and heart. The tune is hypnotic and the love song words entrancing. This is not sentimalized romance with strings and cupid. This is folk as it should be. You are then invited to "Barnet Fair" to relive a long gone tradition of gipsy gatherings. You can feel the atmosphere just from the music.

Who else would get away with setting lines like "Sally's in the alley and Nancy's on the game, Emily is pregnant and wondering who is to blame" to music, although they are the reality of life? On "Senior Service" Steeleye Span do it and produce a modern folk classic.

There is much debate about "The Fields of Athenry" and its origins. Listen to "Gone to America" and re-kindle the debate. The tune is very different, the country of incarceration is different but the sentiments remain. It is one fantastic song, powerfully performed by Prior.

One of the greatest sea-faring songs that I have heard is "Let Her Go Down." It tells a great tale to a fantastic tune but the twist is the captain saying "Let her go down, swim for your lives, swim for your children, swim for your wives."

No folk album is complete without a riddle song. On this CD we get a brilliant example on "Tell Me Why." It uses the usual questions and answers "hunger is sharper than a thorn, truth is whiter than the light."

My one criticism of this top class album is that even with 13 tracks it is too short.

- Rambles
written by Nicky Rossiter
published 4 December 2004

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