Steeleye Span’s 50th Anniversary at City Varieties: A Night to Remember

There was an air of expectation as we waited for Steeleye Span to appear. Some people had ordered their tickets three years ago.

This was officially still the band’s 50th Anniversary tour, started in 2019, but then halted by Covid. Lots had changed in the intervening time, but the audience knew they were in for a timeless performance. I suspect I was in a minority, having never seen the band live before. Many had been following the folk-rock band since they were musical pioneers.

All around me there was a buzz of conversation, amongst people reliving previous Steeleye Span experiences. “When did you last see them?” “2016 in Ilkley,” came the reply from the man to my right. “How old were you were you when you first saw them?” “Eighteen,” came the response from the woman sitting in front of me.

Most of the audience were in their fifties, or older. Although I did notice a few younger faces, often with an older couple. It’s my experience that folk fans are often very good at passing on their passion to the next generation. Yet Maddy Prior, the only founding member still performing, told me when I interviewed her earlier, that despite her best efforts, her own children developed a taste for heavy rock and hip hop.

Anticipation turned to joy as the crimson curtains disappeared and the band took to the stage. Sitting behind the drums was another veteran, Liam Genockey, who joined in 1989. Julian Littman, on guitar, keyboards and vocals, has now put in a dozen years. More recently Andrew ‘Spud’ Sinclair, on guitar, joined in 2015; Roger Kirkpatrick and Roger Carey in 2017. They are also joined for this tour by Violeta Vicci on violin and vocals, who is standing in for Jessie-May Smart while she is on maternity leave.

The whole of the first set was given over to the 1972 Steeleye Span Album, Below the Salt. All Steeleye’s songs from this period are traditional, but musically updated. The band has grown from five to seven performers since the original recording. For me, this new version had a richer, fresher sound. The addition of a second female voice from Violeta added a lightness that wasn’t heard from the album. Maddy harmonised superbly well with Violetta when a higher pitch became necessary.

This was most noticeable on Gaudete, the mediaeval Christmas carol that the band released as a single. The song is performed completely a capella, with every band member taking part. Singing is important to everyone in the band. Maddy has become a singing teacher in recent years and at her home and Arts Centre, Stones Barn, near Carlisle, she runs classes for all levels of singer, including those who believe they cannot sing.

The whole album was played, but not in the original order. The title refers to the placing of the salt on a mediaeval banquet table. The nobility sat above the salt, lower social classes below. During the course of the songs we met all kinds of characters from below – milkmaids, shepherds, sailors and foresters to name a few.

My favourite performance was Sheep Crook and Black Dog, which had a heartfelt intensity. A note of poignancy was added when the voice of the late Tim Hart was used to introduce John Barleycorn. The final song of the set was Royal Forester, positive note on which to pause, given that this is one of the few traditional songs where a wronged woman wins the day.

The interval gave me the chance to appreciate the building. City Varieties Music Hall is the only surviving Victorian music hall outside of London. With a capacity of only 467, the atmosphere is intimate. The layout is decorative, having features of a much larger theatre. The sense of intimacy was enhanced by the willingness of the band to mix with the audience. Most of them had made their way to the merchandise stand in the foyer, where Maddy sat signing CDs.

Some of the audience had made their way to the circle bar, where the walls are lined with playbills, photos and promotional posters. Unusually there is also a small bar in the stalls. Vendors appeared, selling very good, Northern Bloc ice-cream. I am particularly partial to the chocolate and sea salt but on this occasion went for the refreshment of the sharp Sicilian Lemon Sorbet.

Wherever I wandered I was surrounded by dark wood, plush red fabric and history. The venue holds the Guinness World Record for the nation’s longest-running music hall and has been restored to be as near its Victorian roots as possible.

The second set featured a mix of traditional songs and Steeleye Span compositions. Two of the songs were from Wintersmith, their 2013 collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Misty Moisty Morning and The Dark Morris both took us on a musical journey to Discworld.

At 74, Maddy’s clog dancing beginnings are now golden memories, and she is seated when not singing. However, I appreciated the rhythmic weaving movements she used to accompanying the Weaver and the Factory. The whole band seemed to gather energy as they approached the latter part of the concert. Violeta’s violin playing, in particular, reached new heights of vigour.

Maddy by Pete Silver

Steeleye Span’s set finished with the traditional Bonny Black Hare. Maddy, knowingly, introduced it as being nothing to do with hunting hares. This was a strong, frantic, and extremely bawdy end to the second half. Maddy’s voice may not have the range it once had, but her delivery was fine. I caught every single double entendre.

But, of course, that was not the end. There had never really been any doubt that we would be treated to the iconic All Around my Hat for an encore. Steeleye Span has no need to warm up an audience prior to their big participation number. Everyone knows the chorus. When the band pointed their microphones towards the stalls, the singing carried on seamlessly.

After that, everyone needed a rest from singing and the night finished with a rousing rendition of the instrumental, Dodgy Bastards. A fitting end to a night where we had heard songs about all kinds of shady characters.

Editor’s note: Huge apologies to all our readers and to Steeleye Span – For only the second time in our seven year history, we are unable to show you any images of the live performance. We’re working to make up for it.

Remaining Tour Dates

Fri 13th MayRoyal Spa CentreLeamington Spa01926 334418Buy Tickets
Sat 14th MayMaltingsFarnham01252 745444Buy Tickets
Sun 15th MayOctagon TheatreYeovil01935 422884Buy Tickets
Tue 17th MaySt George’sBristol08454 024001Buy Tickets
Wed 18th MayThe Brewhouse TheatreTaunton01823 283244Buy Tickets
Thurs 19th MayExmouth PavilionExmouth01395 222477Buy Tickets
Sat 21st MayThe LighthousePoole01202 280000Buy Tickets
Sun 22nd MayTheatre RoyalWinchester01962 840440Buy Tickets
Mon 23rd MayTheatre SevernShrewsbury01743 281281Buy Tickets
Tue 24th MayThe ElgivaChesham01494 582900Buy Tickets
Tue 4th OctoberWycombe SwanHigh Wycombe01494 512000Buy Tickets
Wed 5th OctoberTyne Theatre & Opera HouseNewcastle08442 491000Buy Tickets
Fri 7th OctoberPavilion TheatreGlasgow01413 321846Buy Tickets
Sun 9th OctoberThe Baths HallScunthorpe08448 440444Buy Tickets
Mon 10th OctoberKings HallBlackburn01254 582579Buy Tickets
Wed 12th OctoberTown HallDudley01384 812812Buy Tickets
Thurs 13th OctoberLavenham ChurchSuffolk01256 416384Buy Tickets
Fri 14th OctoberKings Lynn St Nicholas ChapelNorfolk01256 416384Buy Tickets
Sun 16th OctoberSpinney TheatreNorthampton01256 416384Buy Tickets
Mon 17th OctoberThe StablesMilton Keynes01908 280800Buy Tickets
Sun 23rd OctoberY TheatreLeicester01162 556507Buy Tickets
Mon 24th OctoberTivoli TheatreWimbourne01202 885566Buy Tickets
Tue 25th OctoberNew TheatreOxford08448 717615Buy Tickets
Sat 29th OctoberHailsham PavilionHailsham01323 841414Buy Tickets
Sun 30th OctoberTown HallCheltenham01242 528764Buy Tickets
Mon 31st OctoberWyvern TheatreSwindon03433 100040Buy Tickets

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