Salisbury is only a few miles from the tiny Wiltshire village where Steeleye Span came together in the winter of 1969. Only one original member of the band, the singer Maddy Prior, is still on board, but bassist Rick Kemp and violinist Peter Knight go back long before 1974, the year the band recorded the album that in its entirety made up the first half of this concert.
Now We Are Six is not, perhaps, an album that would have been even Steeleye Span’s most fervent fans’ first choice for them to revisit. It has some ballads fuzzed up into folk-rock: a launch straight into “Seven Hundred Elves”, with Prior twirling in a frock coat that looked like a 1970s TV test pattern, and the faery epic “Thomas The Rhymer”, on which she sang about “the road to hell” without making it sound like the A36.
Other parts of the record have worn less well. The children’s sections, she admitted, “seemed like a good idea at the time”: when they played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, Prior gave it her best hint of the descant from “Hark The Herald”, but Knight scraped away in truculent parody.
Side two of the record – and the first half of the concert – ended with “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, a Phil Spector-produced old chestnut. On the original, David Bowie played saxophone in an impatient bleat; here, the self-effacingly talented multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn took his part.
After the break, there were seasonal carols (a speciality of Prior during her time off from the band), and a run of folk ballads taken at a tempo closer to the Wombles than to Vaughan Williams. The best of this section was “Who Told The Butcher?”, a riddle song that veered between pub-rock plod and genuine menace before revealing itself to be about fly fishing.
The encores were the two songs that took them into the charts and on to Top Of The Pops. “Gaudete” was another Christmas song, this time sung unaccompanied in Latin – not that that bothered the residents of a cathedral city. And when the band dropped out of “All Around My Hat” the whole audience bellowed the chorus at commendable volume. The sound man, perhaps half the age of the next youngest person present, gave a smile of respectful satisfaction. The band took the applause. “If you celebrate Christmas,” said Knight with redundant sensitivity, “have a good one.”
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