Thursday morning I was still in Omaha (actually Carter Lake, Iowa, a long story involving a 19th-century flood and the U.S. Supreme Court), but I returned to San Francisco in time to get to the Great American Music Hall - a venue I frequented much 35-40 years ago for acts ranging from Martin Carthy to the Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, but haven't been in for at least 20 years - for the Steeleye Span concert.
I didn't see anybody in the audience I knew, but everybody looked as if they ought to be people I knew, an observation made to me by the fellow I shared a table with, concerning himself, before I could make it to him. They were almost all grizzled folks of about my age, which has been true of most folk-music concerts I've attended since we were grizzled folks in our 20s.
But it's been a long time since I've been to many folk concerts, and I'd almost forgotten how much fun they can be. A great classical concert offers more ethereal bliss, but for sheer enjoyability, this was the best. It's not that I'd want a CD of it, it was the experience of being there.
For this tour, at least, Steeleye has gone back down to a five-piece, with a slight improvisation. There was Maddy Prior the lead singer, long the last surviving founding member, and long-time drummer Liam Genockey, plus newer members Julian Littman (guitar, who looks in person like Fred Thompson) and Jessie May Smart (violin). The bassist on this tour was supposed to be Maddy's son Alex, but when they crossed over from Canada last week he was stopped at the border, so they picked up a substitute, whose name I believe I caught as Niels Petersen, who did very well (and who looks like Bill Laubenheimer, especially in the beard).
This was my first close encounter with Julian and Jessie. I like them. More than with some of the recent past newer members, I feel that Steeleye would be in good hands if Maddy and Liam retired and they chose to carry on. Jessie is a more emotive violinist than Peter Knight, her predecessor, and has a greater variety of tone, and it's all employed in a thoughtfully appropriate style, insofar as I could hear her (sound balance was down on the violin and up on the drums throughout). Julian is at his best on acoustic guitar, quietly accompanying Maddy in a couple of her pre-Steeleye songs ("Dancing at Whitsun" and "I Live Not Where I Love") and Maddy and Jessie singing an old Maddy and Gay Woods duet ("My Johnny Was a Shoemaker"). In livelier numbers he was energetic and dedicated, though his voice is more rock-oriented and could be deflatingly monotonous when channeling Bob Johnson ("Jack Hall", the only post-classic Steeleye song on the program aside from two from their latest album, Wintersmith) or Martin Carthy ("Boys of Bedlam", which with "When I Was on Horseback" was one of two early songs they rocked up, a la the remake of "Twa Corbies" on the album Time). On the other hand, he was great at "King Henry", which was one of the two classic-period songs I most hoped they'd do. The other was "Long Lankin", which they also did, after which I said to my table-mate in blissful satisfaction, "That's it. They can go home now."
Liam's drumming, though over-miked, was restrained, and in a few quieter numbers he sat silent or served as an additional acoustic guitarist, including in "The Lark in the Morning", the most beautiful performance of the entire concert. Maddy's voice has lost some of its range over the years, but she's deepened in expressiveness and character. The way she croaked out the word "beware" in "Long Lankin" was unexpected but exciting.
Other highlights included the two Steeleye basics, "Thomas the Rhymer" and "All Around My Hat". Maddy professed herself delighted that this audience accepted with enthusiasm her invitation to sing along on the chorus, rather than looking puzzled or having to be taught the words as some audiences do. Another notable performance from the same album was the acappella "Cadgwith Anthem" with four voices (Liam sang too), a very different sound from the Tim Hart-Peter Knight days but quite satisfactory.
There were a few topical comments from the stage, too. Introducing "Blackleg Miner", Maddy commented that this 1840s song was a quaint period piece when she first sang it, then it became vividly relevant during the miners' strike of 1984. Now it's a quaint period piece again. That's the thing about folk songs: they're always the same but they always change.
Steeleye changes too, and I enjoyed the incarnation of Steeleye I heard last night.