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Steeleye Span

  • Hark! The Village Wait
  • Please To See The King

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    Steeleye Span

    Hark! The Village Wait 8 ( 1970 )
    A Calling-On Song / The Blacksmith / Fisherman's Wife / Blackleg Miner / Dark-Eyed Sailor / Copshawholme Fair / All Things Are Quite Silent / The Hills Of Greenmore / My Johnny Was A Shoemaker / Lowlands Of Holland / Twa Corbies / One Night As I Lay On My Bed

    I’ve been reading a book about Ashley Hutchings, ‘The Guv’nor and the rise and fall of folk-rock’. It’s an fitting enough title, although the very notion of folk-rock these days is something of a no-no. It’s a very limiting phrase musically, particularly when applied to the career and achievements of Ashley Hutchings, founder member of the original Fairport Convention. He’s spent the best part of forty years trying to re-define and re-establish traditional English music. It’s something of a thankless task, especially with the English nations reluctance to embrace their own musical heritage. Traditional music generally evolves from local dances. This is true of Bhangra as much as it is English folk music. Take a look at the way the Irish have embraced ( and sexed up ) ‘Riverdance’, in turn, giving the native music of Ireland a huge push as a marketable form, the music now has a foothold in commercial terms. Even though local Morris dance groups across England have taken in a surprising number of young people over the past few years, it’s perceived by the general public at large as something comical and just downright ‘wrong’. Still, England has no protection or funding to promote or preserve their own traditional musical heritage, no Smithsonian institute, for example. These are all the kind of things that have and almost certainly still do, annoy and irritate the dedicated and passionate likes of Ashley Hutchings.

    A further brief word concerning English folk music before we discuss Steeleye Span. It’s a difficult music to at first get into. The entire scene can be intimidating for a newcomer, because there’s fear of intellectual snobbery on the one part, fear of a scene surrounded by geriatrics on another part. These are all common fears based upon misconceptions. The new wave of youthful folk performers in the UK, the likes of Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman and most importantly, Eliza Carthy, have all shown this isn’t a dusty attic containing relics from the past. You can re-connect to the past and bring it back to life, relevant for a new age. Back to Steeleye Span, though. This initial line-up barely made it out of the recording studios before promptly splitting up and splintering. The line-up for ‘Hark! The Village Wait’ consists of Ashley of course, alongside Maddy Prior, Terry and Gay Woods ( of Sweeny’s Men ) and Tim Hart. There was no intention to use a drummer initially, although Dave Mattacks plays drums on a few of the tunes here. Thus, you’ve got the ‘Liege And Lief’ rhythm section! The other aspects of the sound are characterised by strong vocals, both lead and in harmony. When the two female vocalists unite in unison, they create a lovely, magical sound. The most notable difference immediately from Fairport’s ‘Liege And Lief’ is the softer sound of Steeleye Span at this stage. They lack a blazing lead instrumentalist, for example. The material is exclusively traditional, although not exclusively English, no doubt in part due to the Irish influence of Terry Woods. None of these points are particular criticisms, rather observations.

    So, there’s some lovely tunes on the album, a production style and sound that retains and embraces musicians playing live, yet lets itself down slightly in the final execution. There’s no sense of cleaning up at all, it seems a little rough around the edges. Ashley’s bass resonates, yet mixed within the overall sound a little louder than necessary. Comparing the sound of ‘Hark! The Village Wait’ to ‘Liege And Lief’ for example will certainly leave steeleye’s effort slightly wanting. Ultimately though, it’s all about the tunes and the performances. In this respect, despite a slender lack of variety, the album wins through nicely. The purely vocal opener, for example. This is really old world, harking right back to singers in pubs, unaccompanied, that occurred for hundreds of years. It leads nicely onto one of the best performances on the album, musically and vocally, with 'The Blacksmith'. Lovely vocals between Maddy and Gay. The near six minute 'Dark Eyed Sailor' has vocals right in the style and traddition of singers a hundred years previously. Somebody had clearly done some serious listening and research. Indeed, the vocals of Maddy Prior in particular are so shiningly wonderful, you'd almost be tempted to say she could have replaced Sandy in Fairport. A favourite folk-song of mine, 'Lowlands Of Holland' represents another serious six minutes of the album, also one of the tunes here most resembling the sound and material from 'Liege And Lief', a hugely influential album, although at the time, it was unclear exactly whether it was a one-off, whether it mattered at all, and whether anybody else would take that direction and run with it.

    Oh, something not entirely clear with the early Fairport albums was Ashley's huge love and admiration for The Byrds. Several songs here more clearly indicate this, 'Dark Eyed Sailor' for one and the closing 'One Night As I Lay On My Bed' for another. His bass playing, modelled partly on that of Chris Hillman also therefore contains strange distant echoes of a very different musician and music and ideology, Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys. Everything turns full-circle, speaking personally. I love bass playing that pins things together and does something interesting. I love good, distinctive sounding vocals and especially vocal harmonies. I love music that matters to the people performing it. So, for all of these reasons, although the album isn't a classic, I personally recommend this as a good album to pick up for those seeking further than Fairport and wanting to delve deeper into British and English folk music - electrified.

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    top of page Please To See The King( 1971 )
    Blacksmith / Cold, Haily, Windy Night / Jigs: Bryan O'lynn the Hag with the Money / Prince Charlie Stuart / Boys of Bedlam / False Knight on the Road / Lark in the Morning / Female Drummer / The King / Lovely On The Water

    Terry and Gay Woods depart, Martin Carthy joins on vocals and guitar. Peter Knight also joins, a multi-instrumentalist able to turn his hand to mandolin, bass, violin, keyboards and vocals. Maddy Prior is still here of course as is band founder, Ashley Hutchings. No drums for this record, as was the original intention last time out. Yet, even with the highly respected Martin Carthy joining the band, they still can't quite spark instrumentally as magically as Fairport Convention were able to do, seemingly at will. The key enjoyment to be gained from 'Please To See The King' is with the vocals, especially the harmony vocals. 'The Blacksmith' has lovely moments of harmonies, for instance. I like 'Blacksmith' as a song. Of course, it's as old as the hills, yet my attention was drawn to it because of the lovely Lisa Knapp version ( up and coming folk star ) rather than this version. Controversially perhaps, I prefer her version, but this is fine too. Steeleye Span also dig back into the past for their approach to 'Boys Of Bedlam', an accapella piece in the true oral folk traddition. Well, music comes in around the minute and a half mark and it transforms into Fairport-like folk-rock, most enjoyably too.

    Lead vocals on the album appear to be shared, Maddy doesn't always get the spotlight, we've vocals from almost everybody. For the instrumental 'jigs' medley, Steeleye Span fair less well, this just doesn't have the energy or verve of similar things the Dave Swarbrick led Fairport would do, 1970 onwards. I enjoy 'The Lark In The Morning' and the 2nd song, 'Cold, Haily, Windy Night' is a decent tune. The whole thing was about bringing traditional folk music back to life, Ashley felt he had to leave Fairport in order to continue to try and do this. 'Please To See The King' isn't the best project he was involved with, but this is a decent, solid listen all the same, special for the vocals, less so for the music, although the fiddle/violin constantly impresses.

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    top of page this page last updated 11/08/07

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