THE MARTIN CARTHARSIS OF
Reviewed by Patrick Humphries
© New Musical Express
3 Dec 1977
The day I flew into Dublin, President Carter's mother flew out, "Something to do with improving relations" said the taxi driver. He didn't seem impressed. But as Spike Milligan once said, it takes something like that to get the Pope off the front Page in Ireland.
Perhaps not such headline grabbing news, but the reason why I was there (Woodward Bernstein having laryngitis) was the fact that Steeleye Span were playing a short Irish tour.
The gist of this jaunt was to cast a critical eye over Steeleye Mk IV, with Bob Johnson and Pete Knight over the hills and far away, and folk world stalwarts Martin Carthy - for the second time - and John Kirkpatrick bringing Steeleye up to strength.
If the truth were known. I've usually preferred Fairport Convention. In the past theirs has struck me as being a more honest approach and a less flash more endearing style.
So it was with considerable apprehension that I sat down to lend an ear to the latest Steeleye Span opus, “Storm Force Ten”, and it was with growing dismay that I listened to the eight songs. There just didn’t seem to be the necessary impetus and the band sounded like they were re-treading old grapes to produce a familiar if unexciting vintage. The recording sounded flat and listless, and Kirkpatrick’s accordion was well down in the mix.
Dublin stadium is a great bleak barn of a place, usually a venue for boxing bouts.
"Terrible place", recalled Tim Hart, “Liniment soup and blood on the walls", Status Quo had, predictably, sold out two nights earlier in the week, but Slim Whitman had trouble getting a third of the 2,000 seats filled.
It was cold enough to freeze the beads off a rosary, bassist Rick Kemp had to wear gloves for the soundtrack (no cheap cracks). The dressing room boasted a curious document “The More Common Forms of Forbidden Practices in Boxing", which had various members of the wondering how they could incorporate the movements into their stage act, looking as it did, like some Catholic dogma on birth control.
It was while the support act, an amiable, if unmemorable Irish duo, ‘The Establishment', were warming up the 1700 or so punters, that I took the opportunity to chat to Martin Carthy and Tim Hart. They agreed that perhaps the new album was a bit rushed, but felt that the new material was sounding better the more it got played on stage, and that Kirkpatrick's accordion was more distinctive live.
And so to the gig. Any misapprehension I may have had about the new material soon disappeared as Steeleye blazed through an impressive set, drawing on old favourites and displaying the possibilities the band can now draw on.
The permutations are virtually endless, electric and acoustic guitars, strong five-part harmonies, Jew's harp, concertina, accordion, oboe and dulcimer, plus the solid rhythm section of Pegrum and Rick Kemp's soaring bass.
They opened with a song from Way back, ‘False Knight Of The Road’ with Kirkpatrick perched on a rostrum to the left of the stage, Tim Hart in a stunning white creation next to him, roar of applause, enter Maddy Prior stage centre and Martin Carthy to her right.
Straight into ‘Awake Awake’ from the new album and however mannered it may have sounded on record, on stage it positively bounds into life, displaying Steeleye's intricate and rich harmonies.
In John Kirkpatrick they've not only gained an accomplished musician but an able singer and someone whose strong traditional influence is already proving beneficial.
The choice of material was instinctively right virtually all the way through - a cathartic ‘Black Freighter’, a rousing 'Cam Ye O'er Frae France’, and a beautiful .'Boar's Head Carol" (the new single, out in time for Christmas and his year's 'Gaudete’!).
They had everyone up and bopping to a stirring ‘Atholl Highlanders’, and ‘Blue Bonnets’, Kirkpatrick's solo Morris. A new song 'The Maid And The Palmer’ should sound fine, on a future album and plenty more for your money's worth.
The finale of ‘Seventeen Come Sunday" had Maddy careering up and down the aisles and the audience in the palm of her hand, no mean juggling feat.
The few duff notes for me came during Carthy's ‘Treadmill Song’, which never really went anywhere, but took its time getting there and ‘The Victory’, albeit a rousing naval narrative, could benefited from judicious trimming.
The encore came in the formidable shape of ‘Rave On’, from the timeless pen of one B.Holly, poet of the parish, which sounded great acapella. (Aficionados will recall that the band recorded the song in this manner way back in '71.)
From where I was sitting the set sounded fine, but it wasn't to the band's satisfaction. Maddy was particularly pissed off by hecklers crying out for 'All Around My Hat’ (and that's one song this current line-up will never perform) and one section of the audience who kept chattering through all the songs. “It only takes half a dozen people to make or ruin a gig" she said afterwards, but Carthy thought it had a lot to do with the fact that the reaction in Derry and Belfast had been so good, anywhere after there would have been an anti-climax.
On their current form Steeleye are primed for great things, with the past no longer acting as a magnet, but instead as a base for future experiments.
There are bound to be a few failures (I still can't find it in my heart to wax enthusiastic about ‘Storm Force Ten’), but if they can keep together and choose future material with care then this brand of Steeleye have the potential to be the best yet.
They've got a few tricks up their sleeve for the Hammersmith Odeon gig on December 17 but not the manna from heaven mazuma wise of last year. That sort of show biz razzmatazz seems a long way behind them now.
Despite an 11 hour wait at Dublin because of the Aer Lingus strike - at least the bar was open - it was well Worth it. See for yourselves when they come your way.