Steeleye Span: A 20th Anniversary Celebration (Shanachie, 2003)

If, like me, you were late in discovering the joys of British folk-rock group Steeleye Span, then you should first take a look at the excellent Steeleye Span Career Retrospective by Green Man Review's own Peter Massey. Shanachie's Steeleye Span: A 20th Anniversary Celebration DVD gives us an idea of what it would be like to attend a concert.

The Steeleye Span: A 20th Anniversary Celebration DVD (it's also available from Shanachie Records as a VHS tape) is derived from video of a concert at the Beck Theatre on Saturday the 16th of September, 1989. The 53 minute video features the talents of Maddy Prior on vocals, Bob Johnson on vocals and electric guitar, Peter Knight on vocals and violin, Tim Harries on bass, keyboards, and vocals, Liam Genockey on drums, percussion. They perform twelve songs, "Sailor's Bonnet," "Black Jack Davy," "The Fox," "Shaking of the Sheets," "(Somebody's) Following Me," "The Weaver (and the Factory Maid)," "Thomas the Rhymer," Padstow," "Cam Ye o'er Frae France," "Jack Hall," "Gaudete", and "All around My Hat."

The tunes range from contemporary compositions by group members to traditional songs, including early music, traditional May Day carols, and Child ballads. Their a capella arrangement of the sixteenth century Nativity hymn "Gaudete" and the traditional "All around My Hat" are probably Steeleye Span's best known tracks, and you couldn't possibly mistake Maddy Prior's gorgeous voice for anyone else's on "The Weaver (and the Factory Maid)." Of the twelve cuts on the disc though, I think my favorite is their version of "Thomas the Rhymer," not only because of Maddy's marvelous vocal, but especially because of Peter Knight's violin. The use of the violin as a solo voice makes this arrangement closer to the way I suspect the original lay would have been performed than any other performance I've seen.

But as much as I value the opportunity for a glimpse of Steeleye Span in concert, this DVD really doesn't do them justice. The packaging is minimal -- there's no booklet or liner notes, and the cover material does little more than list the tunes. The DVD lets you choose either to play the concert straight through, or play individual tunes. There's plenty of room left on the disc though -- they could have easily included a .pdf or .html file for those users viewing the disc on a computer, or even .mp3s of the songs, or lyrics, which could have been viewable with a conventional DVD player -- almost anything would have been an improvement, since there's almost no information at all about the group or the performance, or even the venue which I suspect was the historic Martin Beck Theater, in New York. (The package says "The Beck Theater," but it doesn't say where the theater is, that is, which Beck, and there's more than one. I know of the famous one in New York, and then there's one in Minnesota, and one in Nottingham. The crowd is American though, so...)

If you'd like an opportunity to see Steeleye Span live you might want to head over to Peter Knight's Web site to see their 35th Anniversary Tour schedule for 2004.

[Lisa Spangenberg]