Steeleye Span, Palladium, London
Tuesday 21 December 2004
"Pity them who see him suffer, Pity poor old Steeleye Span."
"Pity them who see him suffer, Pity poor old Steeleye Span." No need for pity: for punters of a certain vintage, this joyous concert was unalloyed nirvana. The 35th anniversary tour of the Sixties/Seventies folk-music doyens Steeleye Span continues until 30 December, when the group make a Tyneside appearance to celebrate the opening of Gateshead's new Sage centre.
As lead singer Maddy Prior points out, this electrifying folk group took its name from a Lincolnshire ballad, which narrates the story of an argumentative carter, Jon Span, nicknamed Steeleye.
Steeleye's musical argument is impeccable. Grizzled master-violinist Peter Knight and bass guitarist Rick Kemp may not look like the students they once were; but they are at heart. These astute musicians' star remains firmly in the ascendant. Mostly in their fifties, with a partly revised line-up including drummer Liam Genockey and their seasoned new acquisition, lead guitarist Ken Nicol, Steeleye rank among the most stylish and patently musical performers in any genre.
They made us wait agog until the second encore for "All Around My Hat". But then this audience in thrall would have stuck out for coat, scarf and wellington boots too. Steeleye's latest tour draws young punters, too, yet you mostly sensed performers and audience had grown up together, sharing music for three decades.
Narrative ballad and poignant delivery make Steeleye Span the fabulous ensemble it is. You feel their civilised, informal, urbanely shambolic act and beautifully honed performing plug into six centuries: 14th-century folk song; "Greensleeves"; the New England 18th-century West Gallery tradition of William Billings; or the Thomas Hardy tradition zestfully fostered by The Mellstock Band.
It's difficult to cap "Down in Yon Forest" or "Sing We the Virgin Mary" - Prior at her best - or even that now-dated chart-topper, "Gaudete". Knight's fiddle descanting brings its own special poignancy. Several of these seasonal pieces hailed from their new Park Records album, Winter. Only where Steeleye went for big noise did they lose their edge: the group's subtlest performers, Prior and Knight, were simply drowned out; it became folk-disco.
Old friends Tim Harries, Martin Carthy and Ralph McTell emerged from the woodwork to join in. McTell's "Streets of London" sounded truly wonderful. Words glowed like crystal; all voices were impeccably tuned, as intimate as a string quartet.
But nobody can touch Prior: pure, genuine, a truly gorgeous voice. Peter Knight promised us they'll tour again soon. Don't miss them.
The Stables, Wavendon, Milton Keynes (01908 280800) tonight; The Sage, Gateshead (0870 703 4555) 30 Dec
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