Sat, 14 Mar 2015 15:58:27 +1300
Album review by Michael Newbery.
Copyright © 2000.
All Rights Reserved.
The Journey has arrived! I had known the album was coming for some time, but it was a pleasant surprise when, on one of my visits to the CD store, there it was, waiting for me! I took it home in eager anticipation, and it's great!
So, here I am writing a review of (an album of) a concert that happened five years ago. Now I know that I took a while to write my first concert review, but this time it's not my fault, honest! I don't know why the album took so long to arrive, but now that it's here, all I can say is that it was worth it, and I feel inspired to write a review. (Even so, it has taken me a few weeks to get inside the album enough to feel at all confident about reviewing it).
"The Journey", by Steeleye Span
The album bills itself on the cover as including every member, past and present, although this is not in fact the case since Terry Woods didn't make it to the reunion.
There are two CDs, each with over 60 minutes of music. 26 tracks in all. The CDs come in a slip case together with a separate 40 page booklet containing extensive notes and photos. It's an attractively presented package.
The accompanying notes are particularly good. For example, there is a list showing exactly who plays what on each track, which can be a bit of a surprise sometimes—finding out who actually was lead instrument on a some well remembered tracks.
Along with the story behind the concert by Dave Hill there are concert notes and some historical background from Simon Jones of Folk Routes; pictures taken at the concert and some old publicity shots of the band; and the usual production information.
Over the years Steeleye have usually had pretty good liner notes, and this album maintains the standards.
The story behind the concert that is sampled on The Journey is printed in the accompanying booklet. We have to thank Dave Hill for the original idea. (And I do!).
The Journey was a charity concert for War Child (helping kids in war zones) and a 25 year reunion gig for Steeleye Span.
When Dave Hill first contacted the band members, they thought it was a great idea, but were skeptical that it would actually happen, yet somehow it did, and in the end all the band members past and present except Terry Woods made it. An accomplishment all the more special since it involved gathering some of them from the ends of the earth.
The concert began in the afternoon with sets by the bands that the ex-members are now playing in. That portion of the journey does not appear on this album (an opportunity for another release?).
The tracks on The Journey take us from Steeleye Span Mark 1 through to what became the "Time" lineup, with most emphasis on the earliest and most recent. The most successful lineup ("Now We Are Six" to "Rocket Cottage") is represented only by their anthem, All Around My Hat.
The sound quality of this live album is noticeably better than the first three studio albums, at least. It makes me wonder what they would sound like if remixed (not just remastered).
The Journey starts with the Mark I version of the band, more or less. Since Terry Woods was the only band member who did not appear at the concert, Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick take up his duties on the banjo and concertina respectively. Michael Gregory from the Albion Band plays the drum parts handled on Hark! The Village Wait by Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks (who were brought in as session musicians and never counted as part of the band).
The Mark I lineup revisited was actually better than the original. The original was always a bit tentative. This band was mature, exuberant, and confident. (A fair dose of improvement in recording technology can't have hurt either.)
Among other things, Gay's voice has become better over the years (Blacksmith, Fisherman's Wife, Dark Eyed Sailor), she is now a much more confident and assured singer.
The band had some unfinished business to attend to. Steeleye Span Mark I never, ever, played a live gig. The first lineup split up before they ever played a concert. So here at last they addressed that omission. The first six tracks on The Journey are as close to the concert version of "Hark! The Village Wait" as we will ever get.
But more than that, the band had the chance to revisit the old tunes, and replay them with greater insight and years of practice—and they took the opportunity and threw their hearts into it.
The first set of six tracks are:
- Calling On Song
- Fisherman's Wife
- Dark-eyed sailor
- Blackleg Miner
- Lowlands of Holland
Living away from it all in the Canary Islands does not seem to have harmed Tim Hart's skills in the slightest. His singing was as good as ever and it was also wonderful to hear his guitar again. His playing is understated, yet when you concentrate on it you realise just how good he actually is!
I appreciated the rather careful pronunciation on Dark-eyed Sailor. I had always had some difficulty making out all the words on the "Hark! The Village Wait" version and after all these years it's good to finally understand what was being sung.
Blackleg Miner always seemed to be a song that they never could quite get the right handle on, both in the studio and as played live by much later lineups. This time they seem to have nailed it and produced the definitive version. Great bass line!
On to Mark II, exactly as originally constituted, with Tim moving on to dulcimer and Martin electric guitar—and Maddy on spoons!
It's an amazingly rich sound when you consider that the only backing instruments are guitar and bass, with the violin doing duty as lead.
Again, it sounded like the band were relishing the opportunity to have a second crack at some of the early songs, and again I'd say that Mark II (revisited) probably were better than their original selves, allowing for little rehearsal and a live concert vs. a studio.
Martin's guitar starts a bit tentatively on the jigs I thought before he hits his stride, but Maddy's spoons were great.
On to Gower Wassail which was the highlight of this portion for me. Welcome back Tim. We missed you! I thought the vocal harmonies were rather better than on the original.
This set finished with the lovely Lark in the Morning. I found it lacked the aggression of Ashley Hutching's original bass playing, however Peter Knight's violin is superb.
For Mark III they actually have the Mark IV lineup (Mark III+Nigel Pegrum on drums) playing from the Mark III albums Below The Salt and Parcel of Rogues, plus Edward from Back In Line (Mark VII) and All Around My Hat as mentioned previously (adding in Gay on vocals).
This lineup recreation, of the most successful 'mark', is perhaps the least notable of the concert, maybe because it couldn't really be improved upon.
Bob Johnson's guitar style has moved on since he first played John Barlycorn. However, I found Ups and Downs more rollicking this time round than the original and they play a cracking Edmund. ("Cracking Edmund, Grommit.")
I also loved hearing Rick Kemp's wonderful bass lines again.
Disc 2 starts with 'Mark IV'. Actually the lineup for Storm Force Ten and Live at Last, Mark V by my counting. As with Mark III, not a lot to prove, or improve upon. Sit back and enjoy the music (or stand up and dance, more appropriately).
The next few years and albums are skipped, from Sails of Silver onwards (Edmund got slipped in earlier) and we move on to...
Actually, about Mark X by my counting. This is the lineup that produced Time, and here we have the tightest playing of the album, pretty much as it appears on Time. This was the band reformed and revitalised after years of taking it easy, and the energy and enthusiasm shine through. This is all the more amazing when you consider that by this time the band (and audience) were towards the end of a very long concert. The set finishes with Thomas the Rhymer, mark X version.
The album ends with two encores performed by the assembled company: The acapella Rave On, and an instrumental Lark in the Morning/Masons Apron.
The enunciation on Rave On is almost too precise: the vocals are almost too perfect for my liking.
The instrumental however feels like a typical glorious Steeleye Span jam. In an atypical lapse into 60/70's excess it has a drum solo in the middle—except that it is a drum duo! Astonishing stuff, especially for a band that eschewed drummers for a large part of its existence. Peter Knight's fiddle playing is, of course, superb.
As with every Steeleye Span album, there is more than first meets the ear. Each time I play this, I hear new things, and I expect to continue to do so for a long time to come. However, some impressions have solidified. Overall, I like the reprise of the earliest material best, because it is the 'newest'. That is, there is the most creative change from the original. If I had not already heard Time, I might very well favour the latest songs over the earliest.
The quality of the playing is superb. 'Tightness' in a band comes from rehearsal, which it seems they had very little of. So what can one say? The sheer professionalism, musicianship and talent that could sound so good with so little preparation leaves me at a loss for words.
Just in case one were to suspect major sweetening in the studio, there is the odd glitch to show it's live—e.g. Maddy forgetting the words to The Maid and the Palmer, and overall the slightly raw concert sound.
Tim Hart and Nigel Pegrum have been away from the business for some time. Tim Hart in particular. So how can they sound so good?
What is missing?
Well, there will always be personal favourites that were not played—couldn't be played really given the time available. For me the things I would have liked to have heard were:
- The Please to See The King version of Blacksmith
- The Hart & Prior (Summer Solstice) version of False Knight on the Road
- Saucy Sailor
- Long Lankin
- The Weaver and the Factory Maid
- Lovely on the Water
Most especially the last. Since the band did such a superb job of recreating the sound of that mark, I would love to have a 'clean' version of that beloved track.
What has changed?
Over the years, what has changed? They managed to reproduce their old styles and lineups, seemingly without effort, except that some people have become even better over the years, for example Peter Knight's violin virtuosity and Gay's singing.
Maddy's voice has lost some of its phenomenal whipcrack bits over the years, but at the same time her vocal skills have also improved. While I love her lead vocals, I've always taken particular pleasure in listening to her weave her voice in and out and under and through other peoples' vocals.
Painting by numbers: some personal musings and meanderings
It is always tempting to do a "mix 'n' match" with the band lineups. There are enough past and present band members, plus assorted friends, to make several "Steeleye Spans". Even at the concert, you could have had Prior/Hart/Hutchings/Carthy/Kirkpatrick and Woods/Knight/Johnson/Genockey/Harries on stage at the same time representing two perfectly 'valid' Steeleye Spans.
You can try this painting by numbers technique to make up a 'perfect' band lineup, and spend hours debating whether Rick or Ashley was the better bass player. It's an enjoyable game, but basically irrelevant. A band is not just the sum of its members, it's also defined by the dynamics of the interactions of those members. And to a certain extent, it's an idea that transcends the individual members. For example, Maddy's first solo album has essentially all of Jethro Tull as her backing band, but the result sounds like Maddy Prior's band. On Jethro Tull's album Too Old To Rock n Roll, Too Young To Die, Maddy sings on one track, but that doesn't make it her album: same musicians, different bands.
So what might be interesting is seeing if there is still some unfinished business—to see if there is still some unexplored potential in the directions that some of the lineups were going before they reorganised. Personally, I'd be interested in 'successors' to Ten Map Mop or Rocket Cottage or Summer Solstice. On a different tack, I'd also love to lock Peter Knight, Tim Hart and Rick Kemp in a recording studio for a month and see what emerged.
Maddy said in an interview that in the early days the individual members did other projects apart from the band. When that stopped and everyone concentrated on the band they entered their most productive phase. I wonder if however the original notion of "separate together" was not a good one, just that the time was not right?
In an interview once, Tim Hart referred to the audience 'glinting', from the number of people wearing glasses. At that point he decided it was time to get out of the business. He didn't want to just keep playing the same old favourites to an aging audience of fans, no matter how faithful. Judging by the pictures on the CD sleeve, this was definitely an audience that glinted. But not entirely. Those fans have had children. Those children don't see the music as irrelevant, in fact they enjoy it as much as previous generations enjoyed the folk music that Steeleye Span themselves discovered. While it must be somewhat scary to have fans that were literally raised on the music from birth, it must also be gratifying to see that the next generation of bands has taken the torch.
Steeleye Span has become an institution. That doesn't have to be a scary thing. To me it means a certain stability and security, but that doesn't stop you from redecorating, not to mention knocking out the odd wall or adding an extra storey (he says, stretching the metaphor to breaking point).
Maddy Prior says that Steeleye Span is a bus: people get on and off, but the bus keeps going. It is the journey that is interesting. I have enjoyed the journey, I enjoyed The Journey, I'm looking forward to where it takes us in future.
A few last observations:
- I like the album a lot.
- Peter Knight's fiddle playing is amazing!
- How did they do that with only three days rehearsal?
- I miss Tim Hart.
- I'd rather have liked to hear them sing Rollercoaster as an encore. It may not be actually be by them, but it is so far the song about them.
- Any Steeleye Span fan must buy this album.
- I really wish I had been there.