Last modified:
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Review: Steeleye Span, Auckland NZ, 2004

Concert review by Michael Newbery.
Copyright © 2004.
All Rights Reserved.

Steeleye Span & Ralph McTell

Tuesday, 16 March 2004 at the Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna

Getting there

Good news! Steeleye Span are touring this part of the world. Oh! Bad news, only one show, and that's in Auckland. I'm in Wellington, which is over 650km from Auckland.

Nevertheless, I decided we would have a little holiday and enjoy the concert. Went and bought the tickets to discover that it was a double bill with Ralph McTell.

Arrangements made. Flights booked, hire car booked, motel booked, leave arranged; at last the day dawns and off we go.

So, drive to Wellington airport. Pick up tickets. An hour flight to Auckland. Arrive there at 5pm. Pick up rental car. Drive to Takapuna—which took as long as the flight from Wellington through Auckland's usual dreadful traffic. Checked into the motel (which was less than 100m from the venue) and grabbed a bite to eat from One Red Dog in time for the 7:30 start.

The Venue

The Bruce Mason Centre is in Takapuna, on Auckland's North Shore. It styles itself as one of New Zealand's finest venues for the performing arts. However, it's not an ideal venue for a rock band, and although the front rows are close to the stage, there is no real way for the audience to co-mingle with the performers—which rather curtailed Maddy's predilection for dancing off the stage into the audience. It seats 721 downstairs and another 232 upstairs. Downstairs was pretty full and there were some people upstairs. I'd guess maybe 900 people at the show.

The band did not have a huge sound system, and was playing through the venue's speakers at least. The result was rather muddy sound and poor sound balance, at least to begin with. All performers shared the same system.

All in all, nowhere near the worst venue to play, but not the best either.

Entrée

Tim Hart said he gave up the business when the audience started to glint. This audience was definitely past mere glinting—except for a noticeable second generation.

The show started with local guitarist/singer/songwriter called Shane Wells (from Waiheke Island). He did a 20min set of full on acoustic blues and then, after a brief lights-out to adjust mike stands etc, on came Ralph McTell.

Ralph showed an easy mastery of putting the audience at ease and quickly built up a good rapport. He gave a good concert, ending with Streets of London when you only have one hit, you save it which the audience happily sang along with. Then the interval, to be followed by Steeleye.

During the interval we agreed that even if Steeleye had not been playing—if the show had ended there, it would still have been well worth it to make the journey, just for Ralph's concert.

The Band

Mark XV

(The band, as they were on the night, in order from left to right, across the stage)

The Mode

Live Rock Band.

This is a band that has been playing for 35 years. Over 20 albums. Maddy has another 20 albums or thereabouts of her own. If they just used their back catalogue they could easily go over 24 hours solid without repeating themselves. They have a rich range of styles available, from quiet, intimate ballads, through instrumental virtuosity, to full on stadium rock anthems. Not to mention the odd mummer's play.

Obviously, a choice has to be made. They chose their Rock Band 'mode'. With a lineup most closely matching Mark IV the set was drawn mostly from Now We Are Six, Commoner's Crown, and Rocket Cottage, plus suitable tracks from their new album. There were other songs from elsewhen in their journey as well. But this was not music to sit in front of a cosy fire by: this was music to get up and dance to! Rather a pity that we couldn't.

The Set

(From memory. I was enjoying the music rather than taking notes. I may have missed a song, and I may well have the order wrong.)

  1. A Calling on Song
  2. One Misty, Moisty Morning
  3. Samain
  4. Sir James The Rose
  5. Let Her Go Down
  6. Two Magicians
  7. Cam Ye O'er Frae France
  8. Drink Down the Moon/Cuckoo's Nest
  9. They Called Her Babylon
  10. Si Begh Si Mohr
  11. Long Lankin
  12. Thomas the Rhymer
  13. 1st Encore

    All Around My Hat (Our Anthem)

  14. 2nd Encore

    Gaudete

The Concert

The sound system was a little unbalanced, and remained that way through both Ralph McTell's and Steeleye Span's concerts. Ralph was affected somewhat less, as he sang, played acoustic guitar (plus some effects pedals) and blues harp. Steeleye's rock set fared less well. I can't say I minded too much though. I buy the CD to get the 'studio perfect' sound.

Steeleye came out and opened with "A Calling on Song", and rocked on from there. From the opening notes it was apparent that they were on top of it. I could use words like 'professional', 'practiced', 'tight', 'good'. Well, I suppose that they have been playing together a long time (except that Ken Nicol on lead guitar/vocals is new to the band), but even so, they are amazingly good.

Peter Knight's fiddle playing just gets better with time. I've always liked Si Begh Si Mohr, but his arrangement is wonderful! Now that I've got the new album, I'd have to say his performance on the night was even better than the studio version.

Rick introduced "Samain" by apologising for his shirt (I thought it was quite nice) and mentioned that his father was Australian. Ken in his turn revealed that his late father was a New Zealander, and that consequently he had applied for, and been issued, a New Zealand passport. Hmm, that's Ken, Rick & Nigel Pegrum with an antipodean connection. Should we be annexing Steeleye Span to the Southern Hemisphere?

Rick's bass playing was superb. I was watching the interaction between the band, as they took their cues from each other, and Rick and Liam make for a great combination. My son was in awe of Rick's fingers during some of the riffs.

Peter introduced "Let Her Go Down" with some comments on the music business, and why he left it to become a fisherman, and projectile vomiting as an inspiration for song writing.

With Steeleye, it always comes down in the end to the singing, and this combination is in wonderful voice. Maddy's voice was sharp and clear and showed no signs of difficulty in hitting any note called for. Peter, Ken and Rick were no less musical and the harmony singing was perfect as far as I could tell.

Maddy not only sang wonderfully, she jigged and whirled across the stage with infectious energy. She did her best to dance into the audience but had to settle for the edges of the stage in the end. Ken also seemed to be barely suppressing an inclination to bounce, while Rick was only barely tethered to his amp. With Peter pouring his energy into his fiddle and Liam into the drum kit, the stage positively sizzled.

The concert finished at 11:15pm, after Steeleye took two encores, with Maddy's voice as sharp as ever during Gaudete, after what had to have been a tiring hour and a half on stage.

And afterwards

As we filed out of the auditorium, there was Peter Knight signing autographs at the CD's for sale table. So I introduced myself and got a wonderful greeting and even a hug, since "we probably won't meet again for a while." Which, as you might imagine pretty well made my evening.

The next day, we leisurely retraced our steps back home to Wellington, having definitely had a Good Time.

In conclusion

The bus still has places to go. The new album sounds promising, the band has a great touring set, the energy is there—and the next generation wants to hear more!