Steeleye Span wear the heavy robes of history very lightly at this sold-out show, skipping through a rich back catalogue spanning almost half a century. There are ancient songs from centuries long past, folk rock classics written by the band in their 1970s heyday, and even some new compositions. “We aren’t a Steeleye tribute band,” grins Maddy Prior. “We like to keep moving forward.”
After decades of sabbaticals, comebacks and reshuffles, Prior and bassist Rick Kemp are now the sole survivors from Steeleye’s early 1970s line-up. Amicably divorced, this former husband-and-wife duo effectively serve as focal points and lead singers, although vocal duties are shared out fairly evenly. Indeed, blended a cappella harmonies prove to be one of the key weapons of mass seduction in this show, from the opening fanfares of Cold Haily Windy Night to the magnificent closing hymnal Somewhere Along the Road.
Steeleye have travelled a long and winding road through the last 45 years of British pop, forging links with everyone from Fairport Convention to King Crimson, The Pogues to The Wombles. Along the way they also jammed with legends such as David Bowie and Peter Sellers, the latter playing ukulele on their version of New York Girls. Prior recalls this unlikely collaboration before performing a rowdy, mob-handed version of the song.
The band’s signature single All Around My Hat serves as a thigh-slapping sing-along centrepiece, but Steeleye ignore their other big hit, Gaudete. A smattering of tracks from their most recent album Wintersmith, a 2013 collaboration with late fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, are the most prog-flavoured of the evening, most notably Crown Of Ice, a sprawling epic in three different keys, and Ancient Eyes, a widescreen cosmic ballad.
After more than four decades, Steeleye’s electric Eden is still a pleasant place to visit, albeit a little sanitised in places. Folk music is steeped in death, sex and social injustice, themes which surface only rarely in ballads like All Things Are Quite Silent. With virtuoso players like violinist Jessie May Smart and Ian Gillan’s former drummer Liam Genockey now on board, they could also afford to take a few more risks. Steeleye may be the veteran Jedi masters of English folk rock, but they should come to the dark side more often.