British Folk-Rockers Steeleye Span Take It Up a Notch at Cropredy
Word behind the stage after Steeleye Span had finished their performance at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention was that the venerable British folk-rockers had taken themselves up a notch. They had – and a lot of it was down to Jessie May Smart, who took over in 2014 from fiddler Peter Knight.
Classically trained Smart stormed through jigs, quasi-orchestral rifts and bursts of electric violin that were redolent of Sugarcane Harris on Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats” album. Folk-rock personified, perhaps with the emphasis on the rock.
This is not to say at all that the rest of the band were hangers-on (or that Knight is not among the finest fiddlers in the land). On the contrary, Steeleye’s other members hammered out superb, crowd-pleasing performances, from founding member Maddy Prior’s still soaring vocals to relative newcomer Julian Littman’s growling voice and energetic guitar.
It is just that Smart’s improvisational antics add a new dimension to the band’s traditional offerings that both gives it a fresh sound and bodes well for the future. There is be a test in September when a new album ,”Dodgy Bastards”, is due out.
The Cropredy performance went down extremely well with the audience, which was mixed-aged but with many who will have grown up with the band in its 1969 to mid-1970s heyday. For them, there were fine renditions of classics like “All Around My Hat” and “Thomas The Rhymer”.
Another crowd-pleaser was the shanty “New York Girls”, with Prior plunking away on the ukelele after reminding everyone that Peter Sellers (yes, he of Inspector Clouseau fame) was on the original in part because the band did not know anyone else then that could play the instrument.
There were also a handful off offerings from the recent (2013) “Wintersmith”, an album themed around Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. A standout was “The Dark Morris Song”, complete with you evil-looking Morris dancers dressed in black.
Steeleye Span is one of those bands that have been around for decades, with different members numbering in the 20s. No one, not even Prior who took a break in the late 1990s, has been there throughout. She is said to have said that Steeleye Span in like a bus, with people getting on and off as it travels onwards.
If so, the passengers on there now are more than up to the task of keeping things going – maybe even gearing it up.