Steeleye Span are living proof that prog really isn’t about Mellotrons or capes: it’s more about a restless, searching attitude to moving the music forward.
In their mid‑70s heyday, the group ran with the ball that Fairport Convention had thrown in, and albums such as Parcel Of Rogues and their ensuing run of classics reshaped the face of British folk rock forever. The most celebrated line-up, which splintered for the final time after the splendid Sails Of Silver in 1980, reconvened (minus founder Tim Hart and drummer Nigel Pegrum) in 2002 for the Present album of re-recorded vintage material, and it’s that which marks the start of this two-disc compilation. Cleverly opening with eight of these re-recorded classics allows the album to retain a familiar base while keeping the interest of those older fans who already have that material. Smoother and slightly mellower than the thrillingly angular originals, these versions are largely successful – perhaps not essential, but certainly interesting. The remainder of this collection veers between a few tracks from the somewhat fluid 1990s incarnations of the band and a large selection of the post-Present period, with the excellent and highly successful Wintersmith collaboration with writer Terry Pratchett supplying five of the best. Elsewhere, a brace of highlights come in the form of corking efforts from the Bloody Men album – the astonishing electric assault on Bonny Black Hare and the sprightly, hard-rocking Cold Haily Windy Night. There are unavoidable drawbacks here, in particular the absence throughout of the trademark vocals of Tim Hart (now sadly deceased), and the lack of input from guitarist Bob Johnson (now retired due to ill health). That said, the strength of the material on display does indicate a band with a sense of renewed vigour in the post-millennial era, and that can only be good news. Along with Fairport, Steeleye Span today represent the harder-rocking side of a still-shiny coin – one that shall surely remain legal tender for many years to come.