A feast for eyes and ears. Steeleye Span fill the stage with flashes of glorious colour, heady harmonies, spontaneous dances and spell-binding lyrics - plus technical dazzle boundless humour. It is a show, in every exciting and satisfying and magic sense of the word. And it is British to the bone.
A recent report in the 'Observer Magazine' makes the telling point that 'English folk-songs have a larger, keener audience now than at any time before this century: the present generation knows more of them than its grandparents knew…' The article goes on to credit Steeleye Span as the 'most successful' of the electric acts involved in bringing about this revival.
The reason Steeleye Span's members initially pursued this path, aside from the perennial power and beauty that make traditional music attractive, is that, competitively aroused over the years by the spectacular spread of American folk, blues and later rock-and-roll, they wanted to explore the potential of a specifically English sound - taking full advantage of that modern miracle: electricity. The idea was to marry the best of British past to the best of the present and as countless Steeleye Span supporters will attest the marriage was made in heaven.
However, like any substantial union, it didn't mature overnight. The band had existed since 1969; the current line-up has been stable for two years (except for the drummer , who is an addition, not a swop). And all came into Steeleye Span with a full measure of professional experience under their separate belts. The name which now binds them belongs to John 'Steeleye' Span, a character in the song 'Horkstow Grange'.
Steeleye Span feel an impart a definite link with their name-sake, and one wonders if the group would have had the approval of the Victorian gents who founded the English Folk Dance & Song Society to save England's musical heritage from the morass of 'insidious and repulsive' popular songs. Would these fellows have resented the electrics? Some so-called purists do. But how pure is pure? A song four centuries old has lived through many incarnations. The important thing is that it should appeal to its listeners, and thus ensure its own survival.
Steeleye Span have effectively demonstrated that reliance on traditional tunes is not limiting - quite the contrary. It affords the creams of many hundreds of years melodies. It provides a bucket in which any other band's whole repertoire is just a drop. And because all of it is vintage, newly rehearsed songs fit readily into Steeleye Span's performances without dating their other material. The group have a gift for selecting songs with ready contemporary applications. The haunting 'Weaver and the Factory Maid' contains all the present-day woe of a man made redundant by a machine.
The focal point of Steeleye Span on stage is Maddy Prior who has persevered and improved, even when it seemed there was no room for improvement, an stands at the head of her temperamental and talented lady peers. No clinical description of her voice would suffice so well as to say, simply, it makes the hair on your arms stand up. It combines clarity and emotion, whereas other singers normally have to choose between the two. Maddy has sung since childhood, going the semi-pro folk route when old enough, then on to professional solo-ing. It was when she was moonlighting as a folk roadie for visiting American acts that she tipped off to concentrate on British material. No point rehashing what Joan Baez had sewn up. It was good advice and Maddy applied it when she joined Tim Hart to work as a duo: both carried the concept on when they co-founded Steeleye Span.
Maddy also plays spoons, some percussion and does amazing dances that are easy to watch but impossible to imitate - so delightful they prompted Ralph McTell to write 'When Maddy Dances'. Rather than suffer the awkwardness of mike stands and instrument leads on stage, Maddy converts them to benign props, skipping over coiled wire, ducking in and out of a metal forest. She invariably evokes the mischievous maids in her songs. Even the dresses, which she designs herself, contribute to the effect.
Tim Hart began in school rock bands, spent some time in France, then joined the folk scene in St. Albans where Maddy started. In those club days he relinquished his electric guitar for acoustic instruments. Now in Steeleye Span, he plays both - and electric dulcimer to boot. He pointed the band in its electrical direction.
Another unit thet existed pre-Steeleye Span was Peter Knight and Robert Johnson. (Now you see why Steeleye Span is so tight; it's all this modular construction.) Peter has played violin since the age when he was not much bigger than one. Hed shifted his classical training in favour of folk, especially Irish, and was a veteran of the club circuit before teaming up with Robert Johnson in 1968. In addition to playing fiddle, mandolin, banjo, piano and recorder, Peter is an incorrigible wag on stage and stunned a recent Royal Albert Hall audience with a splendid handsring entrance in the third encore!
Robert Johnson has run the musical gamut from touring pop groups to session work to perfecting the traditional music he played in the duo with Peter. Robert had a dangerous brush with normality when he trained as a computer programmer and became a qualified systems analyst. But we all have Martin Carthy to thank for showing him the error of his ways. Robert's guitar sound, which employs fuzz, wah-wah and all things pedals and switches allow, contributes enormously to the group's dynamic fusion of past and present.
Rick Kemp's experience ranges through skiffle and cabaret to a lengthy association with Mike Chapman. He began as a guitarist but switched to electric bass at 18, and subsequently developed into a much sought-after session player. His versatility and profusion of moods and textures has attracted plenty of attention within Steeleye Span format because, until recently, the band chose not to have a drummer. Rick was all the rhythm they needed. But with the 'Parcel of Rogues' LP Rick couldn't resist a little genuine percussion. (He played drums on a few tracks.) And so Nigel was brought in. This is no skin off Rick's nose (or drum) because it has given him an interesting new context in which to work, and further opportunity to get into the act visually. ('The funny one with the hat' has a distinctive stage presence.) And, like Maddy, Tim, Peter and Robert, Rick is a powerfull singer.
Steeleye Span's newest recruit is Nigel Pegrum - the man who accepted the possibly unnerving job of drumming for a group that had done just fine without a drummer, thanks, for some years. Nigel also plays oboe and flute - already incorporated into the group's stage act. He played profissionaly since he was 15, beginning with the nascent Small Faces (originally called Method) , and later, spice, who became Uriah Heep. He left to study at the Turin Conservatoire in 1969, and co-founded Gnidrolog upon his return to England. He devoted 2 ½ years to them before he was snateched up by drum-hungry Steeleye Span.
The first recorded results of Nigel's percussion talents can be found on their latest Chrysalis album - aptly named 'Now We Are Six' - if you happened to decide not to watch 'Coronation Street' recently, you could have seen him and the other five in three TV programmes on BBC-2 from three of Britain's most stately homes.
(Photographs by Jodi Cobb)