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Present—The Very Best of Steeleye Span

Album review by Barry Curtis.
Copyright © 2004.
All Rights Reserved.

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Although this double album dates from 2002, I've only recently purchased it. Believing it to be merely another Steeleye compilation set, I overlooked it in my local folk rock store until a friend told me the songs were entirely new. Well, I'm no fan of feudalism, but when Steeleye Span knock out mediaeval folk rock, I'm in serf heaven. There's plenty of Steeleye's rocky mediaeval sounds on this album, beginning with 'Sir James The Rose', formerly recorded on 'Rocket Cottage'. Like all the tracks on the album, this song has been revisited and recorded afresh. Bob Johnson leads the vocals and electric guitar to thumping effect. It's perfect as an opening track, setting the general tone of the album. Peter Knight's new octave violin is put to great musical effect and Liam Genockey backs up the track on heavy rocking drums.

Next up is a radical reinterpretation of 'Hard Times of Old England', previously to be found on the 'Hat' album. Maddy Prior sings with an element of melancholy. The whole track has been slowed down and it creates a somber atmosphere. On the original Hat version, the tempo is upbeat, almost irritatingly so given the tragedy of the story it tells. In the sleeve notes, Maddy tells us that Governmental economic policies appear to work against the working class, and that little has changed from when this song was initially set in the 19th century. Thus the new version to be found here reflects the tale to a greater degree and as such is an advance, in my opinion.

'Cam Ye O'Er France' – a song from the early doomed Jacobite rebellion that satirises the affairs of King George II – follows. Originally found on 'Parcel of Rogues', this is a more modern affair with a groovy instrumental at the end, similar to the live version found on 'Tonight's the Night', though without the irksome drum solo.

The classic ballad 'Thomas the Rhymer', originally recorded on 'Now We Are Six' comes next. Little has changed, but it is great to hear a refreshed version in contrast to my crackly old vinyl. American readers should note that this is the original longer version – not the poppy short track that was originally released on the American market and can be found on the 'Portfolio' collection.

A song about the cheery subject of purgatory is next. 'Lyke Wake Dirge' is an all-vocal set piece and was originally sung over the remains of the dead – not by Steeleye though! It's a neat addition to the album, for this song has been previously unheard, unless you've seen Steeleye live.

One of my favourite Steeleye numbers follows – 'Black Jack Davey'. For some reason, Davey is now spelt with an 'e' unlike the Davy of the original 'Hat' recording, but this is a trivial point. It's a song about a lady of wealth that leaves everything behind to go off with a gypsy. Touching on themes of the frequent unsuitability of those we love, it has a timeless character. Unfortunately Peter Knight's violin is not as thrashing as in the original and is slightly understated. Nevertheless the song remains a classic.

Next up is a track previously found on 'Now We Are Six'. 'Two Magicians' is something of a comedy number, relating the tale of a couple of shape-shifters, one of which seeks to deny the other of her maidenhead. That Maddy Prior's voice has matured like a fine vintage wine is well reflected here as she relates the tale with apparent ease.

Next up is a radical reworking of 'Blackleg Miner' from 'Hark! The Village Wait'. This song, about a dirty scab and what striking workers would do to him, benefits from Peter Knight's distorted octave violin that is reminiscent of Fairport Convention's Ric Sanders flirtatious and cheeky fiddling. Maddy Prior once again sings with authority and Bob Johnson pumps out some rocking chords towards the end of the track.

The final track on the first CD is the obligatory 'All Around My Hat', taken from the eponymous album. Little has changed, and the band play it so much, it's becoming tiresome for me. Nevertheless, I guess it would be impossible to have a 'best of' album without this rerecording of the song that took Steeleye to number 5 in the UK charts in 1975.

Now on to CD 2, and this is where my aural taste buds are tantalized to breaking point. We begin with 'When I Was On Horseback', a much underrated song from 'Ten Man Mop'. Maddy's voice is yet again toned to perfection – would we expect anything less? – but I'm unsure about the rhythmic backing. The original recording is a somber piece, appropriate given that this is a song about a soldier dying of syphilis, but here we have a kind of marching beat with a wah-wahish guitar accompaniment. I prefer the original, but this track is still a good opener for CD 2. At this stage however, I couldn't care whether these tracks were good or not, I see that my favourite Steeleye track 'Long Lankin' is up in a couple of songs time… Man, I'm drooling.

Between 'now' and 'then' however is 'John Barleycorn', that happy song about beer from 'Below The Salt'. It's been completely reworked with Peter Knight on excellent form playing the mandolin. Rick Kemp leads the vocal in the absence of the original Tim Hart, and I must say that he does a preferable job. He relates the story with an element of rustic roughness that well captures the essence of the song. Three cheers Rick Kemp for helping to vastly improve this great drinking song.

And now, yes! – it's 'Long Lankin'. This is the enchantingly atmospheric song about a serial killer originally found on 'Commoner's Crown'. How does it compare to the original? 'Long Lankin' is a song of two parts. Firstly is the moving euphonic story of the warning given by a Lord to his Lady that a serial killer stalks the moor. Here, Maddy's voice is as sweet as ever, though she appears to lost some of that shrillness – is this a good thing? The acoustic guitar remains, although it takes a back seat to Peter Knight's mood-setting violin. Then comes the rocky bit. Liam Genockey's drums, coupled with Bob Johnson's leading electrics well capture the violence of the aspect of the story where Long Lankin enters the house. It's set a fast pace, and the harmonies work well. Overall, it's a version that's comparable to the original. Well done, Steeleye!

Next up is 'Misty Moisty Morning', originally recorded on 'Parcel of Rogues'. Mercifully, this is a return to the original version in contradistinction to the sound of it played live where it tends to be speeded up and, in my opinion, grates. This is a more relaxed affair. There's a slight instrumental at the end of the song that is a copy from the live version, though it is much shorter.

'Go Down' is next – the song about a sinking ship from 'Sails of Silver'. Peter Knight is the lead vocal and pianist. This is certainly his song, as he spent three years as a commercial fisherman. It's a great song, but I would question whether it belongs in the 'very best of' category. Nevertheless it fits well through the sheer fact that it contrasts with everything else on the album, i.e. there's no violin! It's the kind of song that allows you to take a break from the general trend of the album and put the kettle on.

Having returned from the kitchen, one finds 'Gaudete' is next, the Latin chant from 'Below The Salt'. The lyrics that strictly translate as “Rejoice! Rejoice! For Christ Is Born!” has never really enticed me, though the harmonies work well, and the song did at least make number 21 in the charts in the seventies. However I would question why this song is here – it's barely changed – and like 'All Around My Hat', all Steeleye fans would already have the original. It's not that I dislike the song as such – rather I would remove it to make way for some of Steeleye's superior material.

Next up is 'The Weaver and the Factory Maid', originally found on 'Parcel of Rogues'. At this point I'm beginning to wonder whether I own too many Steeleye albums as I immediately see this is virtually indistinguishable from the incarnation found on 'Tonight's the Night'. Never mind, it's a fair rendition of an experimental song.

'Drink Down The Moon' follows, and I'm back dreaming of serf heaven. This song, initially found on 'Now We Are Six' is one of Steeleye's greatest, a mon avis. The tune is fascinating, says Maddy, and I agree, with lyrics that weave in and out like sensuous love making. And that indeed is the theme of the track, particularly towards the end where the double-entendre kicks in of the 'Cuckoo's Nest', where a lad and a lass attempt to 'rumple up the feathers', leaving the lass with the makings of a 'young cuckoo'. Peter Knight's violin is outstanding throughout but reaches new definitions of excellence in the last movement. It makes you want to dance, but given that Steeleye generally only play in seated theatres, you have to let the mind do the dancing.

The final track is 'King Henry', originally found on 'Below The Salt'. It's a more thumping version than the original, and much the better for it. If electric guitars were around in mediaeval times, people would play songs like this. Fantastic!

For those that don't mind sitting through another 10 minutes of silence, there's a 'Rosebud In June' bonus track. It's a competent rendition of a song originally found on 'Below The Salt'. But the album already has the air of completion about it.

And now to conclude and to finish my review, I'm left thinking I really must see this band again play live where many of these songs form part of the repertoire. It's my favourite Steeleye album, given that it brings so many of their classics together in new ways. It shows that after 35 years in the business, they've still got it. Personally I might have made a couple of changes to the track selection. I would probably replace 'Gaudete', 'All Around My Hat', and 'The Weaver and the Factory Maid' with 'Little Sir Hugh' (Commoner's Crown) and 'Seven Hundred Elves' (Now We Are Six). Furthermore the album doesn't contain any of Steeleye's renowned jigs. Now that Peter Knight is back into the mandolin, a revamped rendition of the 'Mooncoin Jig' (Now We Are Six) might have been nice. Nevertheless this is an outstanding album, and a must for all lovers of quality music, feudalistic or otherwise.

Barry Curtis, August 2004, UK.