Steeleye Span, New Theatre Royal Portsmouth review: Folk royalty continue to stay relevant

Steeleye Span are the sound of my youth - but an inherited sound, one learned from the backseat of the car because as a child in the mid-80s theirs were several of the tapes that were on repeat.
Steeleye Span. Photo by Peter Silver.Steeleye Span. Photo by Peter Silver.
Steeleye Span. Photo by Peter Silver.

I feel quite lucky as there are plenty of awful 70s bands that could have been on those C90s, and Steeleye Span are certainly not awful; but there’s also something appropriate about this handing-down. Steeleye Span are part of the folk tradition of taking songs, giving them an individual twist and stamp and passing them on, and as singer Maddy Prior explained to The News before the gig at Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal, the band has seen changing personnel but it is all about the material.

Maddy is the sole surviving member and is queen of all she surveys, as she should be after a 50-plus-year career leading the folk charge in Britain, and the NTR’s audience is overwhelmingly made up of people who will remember the band from their 1970s dominance.

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The set is made up of old favourites and newer songs, even if some of the newer ones are covers - such as a terrific and delicate version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding which kicks off the second half. Also as it should be, there are regular reminders that folk music isn’t to be categorised as twee or redundant - The Weaver and the Factory Maid is prefaced by a explanation of how it covers fears of coming technology, while Hard Times of Old England, with its lines of Provisions you buy at the shop, it is true / But if you've no money, there's none there for you / So what's a poor man and his family to do? need no explanation in the economic climate of the last couple of years.

While the band sound more rocky in places than you could be forgiven for expecting, with a few glam-esque riffs surfacing - and indeed Status Quo’s Francis Rossi appears on a re-recording of Hard Times - they are tight and every song is a winner.. While there’s a great personal pleasure to be had from finally hearing the opening notes of Black Jack Davey ring out in the flesh, and there are several magical moments as guitar and Athena Octavia’s dextrous violin battle through the night, this band is a timely reminder that for all it is maligned, there are fewer strains of our culture that are as important and relevant as folk.

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