May God keep all good people from such bad company. -- lyrics from 'The Three Butchers' which has been recorded by Steeleye Span. This ballad is also known as 'Gibson, Wilson and Johnson'. It was printed on black-letter and white-letter broadsides in the 17th century and is in both the Roxburghe and Pepys ballad collections.

So you've been shown the Green Room in the Great Hall, where the posters from some of the myriad bands who've played here are displayed? Indeed they do tell an interesting tale themselves. Whitstable Oyster Co. Ceilidh Band . . . Eddi and The Fey. . . Nazgul. . . Boiled in Lead. . . Jump at the Sun. . . X-Bella. . . Why there's even an old broadside for some now-forgotte-but-obviously-famous-at-the time fiddler who played here not long after Robbie Burns penned 'A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation'.

And of course Steeleye Span has played here as well. You can still feel the spirited dancing of Maddy and hear Peter's violin playing when it is very quiet in the Great Hall. . .

Ahhh, the Infinite Jukebox just decided to add its opinion by playing that lovely version of Steeleye Span doing 'Cold Haily Night' which was recorded off the sound board at Fairport's 2006 Cropredy Festival on the evening of August the tenth -- one of those nights when everything was quite perfect. Steeelye Span, live or recorded with Maddy singing, is always a treat!

But Steeleye goes back a lot longer than when that recording was done, as the photo here is of the original 1970 Steeleye Span lineup of Ashley Hutchings, Terry Woods, Gay Woods, the late Tim Hart, and Maddy Prior. (In the concert reviews section below, you can see the nearly decade old current line-up of Maddy Prior, vocals; Peter Knight, violin, vocals; Ken Nicol, guitars, vocals; Rick Kemp, bass, vocals; and Liam Genockey, drums, percussion.)

Their name, for the few of you who haven't heard -- well, the tale is told in the liner notes for Hark! The Village Wait including the acknowledgement that 'We'd like to thank Martin Carthy for our name'. Additionally, Maddy Prior tells in the sleeve notes of Spanning the Years that '[Martin Carthy] had suggested the name Steeleye Span to Tim [Hart] late one evening while staying at Tim's family home, The Vicarage in St. Albans. The name comes from a Lincolnshire ballad called 'Horkstow Grange' and is a story of an argument between John Bowlin and Jon Span, whose nickname was Steeleye.'

The story of 'Horkstow Grange' recounts a fight between a tyrannical farm foreman named John Bowlin, who came to blows one day with an old waggoner named J.S. 'Old Steeleye' Span -- and came out the worse for wear. Supposedly, Span himself wrote the lyrics, and set it to a version of 'Andrew Rose'. It was collected by Percy Grainger from George Gouldthorpe of Goxhill, North Lincolnshire in 1905.

Over several cups of Earl Grey tea, I asked Deborah Grabien, co-editor of this edition and author of the Haunted Ballad mystery series that captures English folk rock music ever so well, what she thought of them. Here's her reply . . .

Why are they so good? Um. Well. Let's see. Let's pick an album or two - I'd say Ten Man Mop and Please to See the King, just because those are my two favourites -- and see if we can condense the reasons:

One of the best guitarists alive, hello, Martin Carthy. Martin's harmonies with Maddy Prior. Maddy's voice, and (side thing here, stage rather than recording) the movement of Maddy's skirts as she danced. Rick Kemp. Tim Hart. Peter Knight. The perfect appropriateness of, basically, every song they chose to do. A lovely stage chemistry, every time I saw them; a gorgeous tension on the recording end (listen to 'When I Was On Horseback'; if your nerves don't stretch, you're missing a gene somewhere). A bone-deep musical understanding of when things should stop, change tone, change pitch, soar, quiet down again.

Am I missing anything? And does it matter? They just work for me, period.

We also decided to ask some well known writers and musicians what their favourite Steeleye Span albums were. As you will discover in reading these picks, most of the commentators favoured the early years of Steeleye Span. Of course, that might reflect more the age of many of those folks than anything else as we all tend to favour the first bonnie bunch of recordings we hear of a given group!

The core essence of Steeleye is quite obviously Maddy Prior which is why '...And Maddy Dances' is the appropriate title of Deborah's illuminating look at the group which she cautions the reader about here -- 'Warning, up front, in advance: if you're expecting a scholarly historical retrospective of Steeleye Span, you're doomed to disappointment. (You also don't know me very well, but that's a different issue.) I've been a fan of theirs for over three decades, and I'm going to write about the way I've always listened to them, perceived them, felt them: prismatically, split into streams of sound and light over a central rock at the heart of the prism.'

Of course, Deborah also interviewed Maddy which made for a wonderful time for her -- 'Question: What's the perfect way to start off a misty moisty St. Valentine's Day morning in San Francisco? Spending an hour on the phone with Maddy Prior, that's what. Hands down, seriously. Forget the roses, the wine, the Hallmark cards. To hell with the chocolate hearts and the rest of it. Give me an hour on the phone with a woman who's been one of my musical icons for 35 or so years, having a long lovely wandery conversation about everything from trekking for charity in Ethiopia to the original Courts of Love, and the rest of the day is gravy.' Read her interview here.

Ten years before, Michael Hunter interviewed her as well -- 'It must be quite a unique scenario. For 28 years, Maddy Prior was the front person for one of the most successful folk-rock groups ever -- Steeleye Span (as if you didn't know). Come the late '90s, she got off that particular bus, as she described it, and forged ahead with her own solo work. Interestingly, neither her or the band's career has suffered, despite Maddy being the main focal point for all that time. In Steeleye's case, Gay Woods took over the lead vocals and the way they have approached the change has ensured their reputation stays intact. Maddy herself always had a number of projects apart from the band: Silly Sisters (with June Tabor), The Carnival Band and the Maddy Prior Band among them. Now, her most recent solo CD, Ravenchild, has been issued by Park Records, an enigmatic album with a couple of feature sets of songs on the diverse topics of Napoleon and ravens. She took time to discuss it on the eve of her 2000 Australian tour.

Though not entirely about Steeleye Span, our sole book review this edition, by Lars Nilsson, is Brian Hinton & Geoff Wall's Ashley Hutchings -- The Guv'nor & the Rise of Folk Rock which has really cool material on the very early years of Steeleye Span as Ashley is the only member of the band so far to tell the tale of formation of this group, so it is indeed well-worth reading.


For a career overview, let's turn to Peter Massey, who gives us a detailed look at the career of Steeleye Span up to a decade ago. Peter says 'When the editor asked me to write a career retrospective about Steeleye Span, it was like someone giving me the keys to his Ferrari with a full tank of petrol and being told to enjoy myself. We are talking here about someone who has been an ardent fan of the band since they started back in 1970. Someone who would have given his right leg to have played in Steeleye Span and possibly his left leg to have played in Fairport Convention.' Read Peter's engaging review for all the details!

Deborah Grabien says she soothed her soul after Back in Line (see below for the gory details) by switching over to the Steeleye anthology, The Lark in the Morning [Hark! The Village Wait (1970), Please To See The King (1971) and Ten Man Mop Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971)] -- 'This does not only what I wanted, but what I expected of it: it brings me the best of Steeleye Span, done properly.'

Want a really good look at their early recordings? A Parcel of Steeleye Span -- Their First Five Chrysalis Albums 1972-1975 contains Below the Salt, Parcel of Rogues, Now We Are Six, Commoner's Crown, and All Around My Hat! Iain Nicholas Mackenzie, our Librarian, got to review that impressive set (2009) which is taken from some of their early albums. 'So the bottom line is that this is a near perfect introduction to one of the finest folk rock groups ever to grace Albion. Hell, you even get to hear the original recording of the song which they end nearly every concert with -- 'All Around My Hat', off (obviously) the album of the same name.' He has a lot more to say, so you should read it.>

Our editor-in-chief once asked our staff what was Steeleye Span's best boxed set? Peter responded with Original Masters (1977) as his answer and thereby got the assignment of reviewing why it's the best! He said 'Ask any of the staff at GMR who is their favourite folk rock band and 10 out 10 will answer Fairport Convention, me included,' Peter tells us. 'However, there is a distinct difference between Fairport and Steeleye. Fairport Convention is a 'rock' band playing folk music, whereas Steeleye Span is a 'folk' band using rock band instruments and principles.' Intrigued? Read on for more!

<Michael Hunter looks at two albums from the same time, with the first up being Storm Force Ten [which] came out in 1977, the year preceding the ‘final’ split, and from the opening track 'Awake Awake', it is apparent that Steeleye trademarks such as tuneful and memorable songs adorned with gorgeous harmony were still to the fore. Hart, Prior, Carthy and Kirkpatrick each have distinctive voices that work well en masse, and the swirling accordion sounds as much at home in the arrangement as the fiddle work of yore.' And next is Live At Last! which only has seven tracks but runs to just under 50 minutes. Recorded at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth just days before the final split in 1978, the live representation of this line-up shows further diversity in their repertoire, and the presence of an obviously enthusiastic audience helps prevent any perceived malaise in performance that some may see in the studio album. Kirkpatrick takes lead on the opening instrumental 'Athol Highlanders / Walter Bulwer’s Polka” and with Carthy’s distinctive acoustic guitar adding its part, the integration of the two ‘new’ members is quite apparent by this stage, while still sounding like a band worthy of the name Steeleye Span.'

Heed the words of Gereg Jones Muller as regards this album -- 'Absent friends Bob Johnson and Peter Knight may have returned to the fold, but the sound is new and unique. From the opening chords onward - crisp, smooth, and electric - you know that this is not your first-generation Steeleye album. And although Sails of Silver was originally slated to be a sort of triumphant return, the listening public did not respond well to the sound. The album was a commercial failure. And that’s truly a shame. Because artistically, it’s a distinct - and quite distinctive - success.'

Deborah Grabien was not happy with what happened to Back in Line (1986) once it hit the studio -- ' Well, damn it. I've just finished a complete listen to Steeleye Span's 1986 Back In Line, and I'm cranky. Frankly, I want to take the producer out behind Maddy Prior's barn, and issue a cluesticking. Back In Line is an album with some excellent songs, solid to world-class musicians, one of the world's best vocalists, and absolutely no energy. And that's down to the production. John Acock, who produced this thing, blew it. There's a fine but very distinct line between 'clean' and 'bloodless'. The production on Back In Line crosses over, disappears and nearly fades out entirely.'

Debbie Skolnik got a look-see (and listen) to the Steeleye Span In Concert DVD (1994) which is rather choice selections from two concerts. She says 'If you love this band and especially if you were not able to see them perform live, go out and get a copy!' Need we say more?

Michael Hunter looks at a version of the band that survives in recorded form as a one-off the from of Time only -- ' In 1996, Steeleye Span found itself at one of its career high points. Even if one of the reasons was borne from misfortune, that is the return of original member Gay Woods to help relieve Maddy Prior’s fluctuating voice problems, the resultant line up was one where the whole seemed even stronger than its already talented parts. I recall seeing the Prior / Woods / Knight / Johnson / Harries / Genockey line up live at the time, bringing along a friend who hadn't seen them before, and who was amazed at the power of these old folk rockers. This particular Steeleye only recorded the one album, though there is also a Time VHS video wherein the band mimes to each track in front of an audience as if it is a live gig! It’s interesting to note that compared to their true live sound, the performance on the video comes across as quite restrained, but listening to the CD of the same recordings, it is a powerful and confident work.

Chuck Lipsig reviewed their Horkstow Grange recording (1998) -- 'Are they as good as with Maddy? Or should they just throw their instruments in the trash? Suffice it to say that Chuck believes this version of Steeleye Span is very, very good!'

Meanwhile Michael Hunter looked at the Australia-only release of Steeleye Span's A Rare Collection 1972-1996 (1999) which showcases this English group in their Down Under very nicely!

Lahri Bond was fortunate enough to see them at the Iron Horse in his hometown of Northampton. He was very disappointed in them at this concert, but raves about Bedlam Born (2000) and also loved their live album out at that time, The Journey (1999).

Steve Power weighs in on Present -- The Very Best of Steeleye Span (2002) -- 'It is a double-album, one CD coloured blue and the other brown (if there is a significance to that, I'd love to know what it is) with interesting sleeve notes by Maddy, Bob and Peter. (The words would have been good, too, guys!). The lineup is close to that of the 'glory days' -- Maddy Prior (err, who else?) on vocals, Bob Johnson on electric guitar and vocals, Rick Kemp on bass and vocals, Peter Knight on fiddle and vocals, and Liam Genockey on drums.'

Lars also looked at They Called Her Babylon (2002) and wondered, is it 'a classic Steeleye Span album? Well, it's too early to tell. Classic albums earn their status as time passes...I will certainly keep on playing it through the summer. Well...a summer classic then!'

Lisa Spangenberg looked at their concert DVD -- '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 (2003) gives us an idea of what it would be like to attend a concert.'

Lars Nilsson reviewed Winter (2004) -- 'Folk rock and Christmas always seem to go well together. There is a long line of successful seasonal albums incorporating singers and musicians from that field ... So it should not come as a surprise to anyone to find Steeleye Span joining the Christmas-album force. After all they had their first hit with a song in Latin telling about the birth of Christ, Maddy Prior has already explored the territory with the Carnival Band, though with medieval instruments, and the newly recruited Ken Nicol played a crucial part on the Albion Christmas album of 1999.' Not sure about you, but I like to pick up one Christmas album every year to add to my collection, and this sounds like an essential buy!s

Steeleye Span! Folk Rock Pioneers In Concert(2006) is a recording which Michael Hunter says shows this venerable band at its very best -- 'It was only a few years ago that the future of Steeleye Span looked bleak indeed. One by one, various members had left until only stalwart fiddler Peter Knight remained. A number of their songs have contained a magical element, however, and in 2002 that magic worked on Steeleye itself when out of the ashes, they reformed with a classic line-up and began life again as a recording and touring band. Move forward two years to 2004 and the band celebrated its 35th anniversary with a world tour. By this time, health concerns had necessitated long-time guitarist and singer Bob Johnson's departure; his place taken by ex-Albion Band member Ken Nicol who slotted easily into the position, and took little time in making it his own. If any evidence was needed that the current line-up is as strong as any that went before, this double live CD will easily provide it.'

Lars Nilsson in reviewing Bloody Men (2006) posed a question -- 'It is lovely to have Steeleye Span back in business again, with what seems to be a stable line up. After all this is their third studio album in a row with the same five members, something we are not used to. And with it also being the third studio album in two years, they are close to the production pace we saw from them at their very beginning, some 35 years ago. One of the problems with listening to new albums from old groups is that we each have our favourite era of those groups' history. Any new product is always compared with those 'classic albums' of the past, albums that usually stood for something new and revolutionary when they first appeared. But how can you continue being revolutionary for almost 4 decades?'

Michael Hunter looked at Live at a Distance (2009), a double CD/DVD combination of a live performance. Michael sums it up well: 'When they play a delicate piece, it can be genuinely moving. When they rock out, it can be exhilarating. When they just coast along however, it’s OK but disappointing, and while there’s not an overwhelming amount of coasting altogether here, there’s a bit too much for comfort.'

Michael Hunter looks at their latest release, Cogs, Wheels and Lovers (2009). He reports that 'from the opening track..., it is clear they are still in a creatively fertile period and certainly understand what folks rock is meant to be about.' Does Steeleye Span still have what it takes? Apparently so, but read all of Michael's review to see how they're doing.


Towards the end of April 2008, Chris Conder saw them at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. 'It was frankly astonishing. Plenty of old folk-rock bands (cough, Fairport, cough) have turned into bloated, tired reflections of their once zealous pasts, and Steeleye can't be entirely excluded from this. But their 'Boys of Bedlam' alone is enough to confirm that Steeleye Span still have the restless invention that made them such pioneers in the first place'. Chris reveals all about how these legends fare, after some 30-odd years in the business, right here!

Peter Massey was lucky enough to attend one of the Steeleye Span Reunion Tour shows in Southport, Lancashire on December 7. Steeleye is one of the seminal English folk-rock bands, and this tour reunited most of its long-term stalwarts, which included Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp, Peter Knight, and Liam Genockey. Bob Johnson, also part of this lineup, couldn't tour with them for medical reasons, but Ken Nicol, late of the Albion Band and a variety of other groups, filled in quite ably. This show was unusual in that 'The playlist for the concert and the album, 'Present,' was selected from votes placed online by fans on the Park Records Web site. Peter was a bit disappointed that there was no newer material in the set list, but he says, 'I know it is hard to put a band together with a lineup that creates that little bit of extra magic, but I have said it before and I will say it again -- 'This is the line up, they are the Steeleye Span that everyone remembers and loves. Long may they reign!'

Chris Woods has an insightful look at the concert that Steeleye Span did at the Danebank Theatre in Congleton, UK. He notes, 'This is one of those situations that throw into sharp relief the difficulties of writing live reviews. Lahri, one of our US reviewers, went to one of the American dates on the current tour and found it a significantly less than satisfying experience. Just a few days later I went to one of the UK dates and was knocked out by the gig.'

More recently Christopher Conder saw them at London's The Queen Elizabeth Hall on April 27, 2008 -- ' Some acts you just have to see as a matter of principal. Whether they'll actually be any good is a side issue. I'm not a particularly rabid Beatles fan, but when Paul McCartney exits this world I'll be glad I've seen him. Bob Dylan's a cantankerous little bugger live, but I'm glad I paid my money to watch him sit on the far left of the stage playing piano and stoically ignoring the audience at the Finsbury Park Fleadh. Steeleye Span may not have had the seismic world-changing effect that Messrs McCartney and Zimmerman did, but in our little musical corner of English trad they were pretty groundbreaking and influential. With a fairly credible version of the band (known for its ever changing line-up) currently touring and recording, and rustlings in the folk press of a renaissance, it seemed a good time to tick them off my must-see list.' Go thisaway to see if it was worth his while to see them.




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'The Oak King March' (featuring Will Harmon and Zina Lee on fiddles and Pete Strickler on bouzouki), composed in honour of Peter S. Beagle

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Chuck Lipsig on 'Star of Munster' variations

McDermott's 2 Hours' 'Fox on the Run'

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Tinker's Own performing 'The Tinker's Black Kettle', a jig by Charles de Lint from The Little Country

Vagabond Opera's 'Marlehe'

A Vasen tune for your enjoyment

An interview of Olav Johansson of the Swedish neo-trad group Vasen that played at Bowdoin College a few weeks back by Green Man staffer Barb Truex. It's an eleven minute piece that you can download here.

Cathrynne Valente's 'The Surgeon's Wife'

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Robin Williamson's 'Five Denials on Merlin's Grave'


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Posted 12 June, 2010 5:30 pm Pacific LLS
Archived 26 June, 2010 8:00 PM Pacific LLS