There’s an argument that many bands outstay their welcome, clinging on past some notional sell-by date for rock and rollers to have new music worth sharing with an audience.
So when violinist Peter Knight announced, on the eve of Steeleye Span’s tour to promote their Wintersmith album, that he was leaving when the tour finished, it could be seen as going out on a high.
Will the loss of Knight’s distinctive fiddle playing and writing spell the end for the band? Too early to say, but I’ve a suspicion there’ll be more to come, with newcomer guitarist Julian Littman finding his writing feet and, perhaps, former member Bob Johnson continuing to contribute songs too, even if ill-health stops him touring. Just listen to Littman’s Dark Morris for the continuation of Steeleye’s tradition of marrying ‘folk’ with hard rock riffs – the best example since Thomas the Rhymer in my book.
The Wintersmith collaboration with SF author Sir Terry Pratchett to capture his Disc World in music deservedly reignited fans’ enthusiasm for a stalwart folk-rock band that has sometimes seemed content to rework old favourites from the tradition rather than explore new ground.
Those critics who cared to listen to Wintersmith ladled out the superlatives and there has even been some radio play outside the folk ghetto. If Steeleye had been ageing Americans, they’d have got a whole lot more attention in the press and on TV, but UK media folk always seem embarrassed by any mention of Morris dancing.
Yet this is a world away from the twee olde English folk that, for some, is still represented by All Around My Hat, though it didn’t seem to worry guests John Spiers and Jon Boden when they ran back on stage to join in the encores at a gig at the Barbican before Christmas.
They’d already brought additional muscle to the live performances of songs from Wintersmith that were only lacking labelmate Katherine Tickell’s Northumbrian pipes to capture the full impact of the album.
At one point on stage there were so many pieces of percussion being played by so many people during Knight’s instrumental The Dark Morris Tune, that I was reminded of a Yes performance of Tales from Topographic Oceans at the Rainbow in the mid 70s. But perhaps that shows my weakness for a concept album.
Here are Maddy Prior’s thoughts on Knight’s departure and Wintersmith in an interview with Emma Hartley from her excellent Glamour Cave folk blog.
It’s always possible that Knight will change his mind and return to the Steeleye fold, though his comment that ‘enough is enough’ and complaint at the lack of democracy in choosing the album cover art suggest otherwise. But Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp in the past have taken time out and returned. In the meantime, Wintersmith’s closing song, We Shall Wear Midnight, is a fitting lament to his contribution to the band and a fine tribute to Pratchett.
PS: It’s both amazing how close Erasure’s rendition of Gaudete is to Steeleye’s unaccompanied version (ignoring slight differences of pronunciation), and how sinister Vince Clark’s keyboards sound. Almost a Wintersmith outtake…
Update February 27: Just caught up with the news that Steeleye have added a new violin player, Jessie May Smart, for live dates in 2014. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=706755296021463&set=a.462770630419932.109216.397329803630682&type=1&theater