Tag Archives: Steeleye Span

INTERVIEW WITH WOLVES FOLK-PUNK BAND UNDER A BANNER

With just over a week to go before their biggest ever London date London Celtic Punks interviews Under A Banner. Purveyors of passionate, powerful and poetic folk-rock and with a new album to plug and a headline tour we wanted to find out a bit more about them.
First things first can you give us a history of the band? The who, what, why and how? Were any of you in any other bands previously and what happened to suddenly make the leap to forming Under A Banner?
Under A Banner began as a duo around 6 years ago and other musicians were steadily gathered to fill out the sound and make the band a more viable proposition for recording and performing the music I always envisaged the band making. I am the only original member of the band now. I started the whole thing as I desperately wanted to return to performing original music live. I’d previously played in a fairly short-lived band called Approach and have also played acoustic covers in pubs; the termination of the latter course of action triggered a visceral response to what I saw as virtually non-existent local scene for original music. Although I hail from Wolverhampton, the five of us live in three different counties.
You’re from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. Can you tell us a bit about what its like there to be in a band round there. Is there much of a music scene? What about for celtic music?
The unfortunate demise and subsequent closure of Wolverhampton’s Varsity venue hit the local live scene quite hard. We still have the Newhampton Arts Centre, The Slade Rooms and, a little further down the road, Bilston’s popular Robin 2 venue. Each of these regularly play host to both tribute/cover and original music. Without deriding the former too much, it seems that original music (in particular folk infused genres) is once again spearheading a palpable fight back against the nostalgia or copycat music market in the Midlands.

How would you describe yourselves. Folk-punk, English-folk, celtic-punk? Do you think it matters in particular. Who has been your biggest inspiration for Under A Banner?
When asked about Under A Banner’s genre we normally plump for ‘alternative folk-ish hard rock’. This is because we fit into a number of brackets and exist outside of them simultaneously. We draw our inspiration from a very far-ranging and eclectic pot of music. The single unifying genre is metal, which presumably explains the heaviness of a lot of our material, but my own personal influences include New Model Army, Tori Amos, Loreena Mckennitt, Tool, Ambrozijn and Alestorm – to name but a few. Other sources for inspiration include Opeth, Rush, Iron Maiden, Clannad, The Stranglers and Thin Lizzy. A number of these bands and artists have made significant contributions to the continuing popularity of music with a Celtic flavour.
I think it’s fair to say that you are a part of the same scene of big ‘folk-punk’ bands like New Model Army and The Levellers and more recently Ferocious Dog but do you think it’s more important to connect with their fans or get away from the folk-punk ‘ghetto’ altogether and get your music out to new people? What has been the reaction from their fans so far when you have played with them? Do they give you a fair crack of the whip or are they only interested in seeing the headliners?
We were fortunate recently to support TV Smith (formerly of punk heroes The Adverts) and a week later New Model Army. It’s often been noted by fans, reviewers and bloggers that we belong in the ‘Celtic folk/punk’ ‘club’. However, we’ve picked up as many new fans playing to rock and metal crowds. We went down well with the New Model Army crowd, in spite of an incipient chest infection which had begun to weaken my voice a couple of days before the gig. I managed to sing over and through the congestion and got the audience- quite a number of whom at least knew who we were- singing along. I have always known that followers of long standing cult bands like NMA are very devoted to their favourite bands, so, under the circumstances I think we did rather well.
Traditional folk music obviously influences Under A Banner so which individuals or bands do you think have been the important links between rock and traditional folk music in the past?
 In my opinion bands like Steeleye Span and Oysterband did wonders for the synthesis between folk and rock. Speaking personally, I prefer it when bands step out of genre boundaries so frequently that critics can’t pigeonhole them.

What themes do you write about for Under A Banner? Do any of you have backgrounds in folk music and if so does this influence your writing and performing? The folk music scene is very stuck in the mud in my opinion and not very open to change so how has the folk scene been towards Under A Banner?
When writing new songs (I pen the lyrics and chordal skeletons of our songs) we draw upon a number of themes. Not all of our songs are agit-socio-political commentary, and not all are angry. I suppose we write about the same things (life, the universe and everything) as a lot of other bands do; the trick is in being able to express these ideas and abstractions in new and original ways. We at least try. Regarding the repetition of themes on the folk or folk-rock ‘circuit’, there’s something of a tradition within these genres to rage against the system, whatever that actually means.
One thing I have been very impressed with is the connection the band has with it’s fans. Do you think its important to foster a sort of family relationship? 
It would appear that in today’s musical climate, the most successful of bands – especially those without significant financial backing of major labels or other benefactors – are those who foster an ongoing two-way conversational relationship with their fans. This is something that we are acutely aware of and happy to participate in. We make regular use of both a Facebook band page and a gig group as well as Twitter (which appears to be on the decline actually) and a mailing list. The maintenance of each of these is key keeping people abreast of the band’s plans. We have made quite a few friends this way, so it doesn’t feel too arduous.
Now Wolverhampton is a very working class town and like most of the industrial parts of England outside the south-east has suffered under both Labour and Tory governments over the last few decades. How has this changed the town. It’s still massively pro-Labour and was pro-Brexit but what is the town like. Has regeneration achieved anything for the ordinary man and woman in the street. What is their that makes you proud to be from Wolves?
As I previously touched upon, being from Wolverhampton is a mixed blessing. The city doesn’t have such an active and enthusiastic live scene for original music as other places we’ve played, although metal bands seem to have plenty of opportunities to combine forces and work with local promoters. Having said this, Wolverhampton is far from a cultural dead zone. The resurgence in the popularity of real ale and craft beer here has begun to improve the city’s nightlife experience, with several new real ale bars and micropubs springing up in and around the city centre. When these venues host open mic nights at least some small gesture is made to revive part of the live music scene. The recent regeneration projects in the heart of the city’s shopping complex are also beginning to gentrify my hometown. The expected and ubiquitous giants of commerce are still very much the major players, but while some smaller independent retailers have given up their long-held plots under the hammer of ever increasing ground rent, some have clung on and continue to flourish. Metamorphosis has to happen in cities, whatever their size; there are of course winners and losers in this process. On the whole I’m happy to be part of it all. If we, as a band, can make more of a mark with what we do then I could definitively say that Wolverhampton has played its part; it is, after all, where we draw our largest crowds outside of festivals and big support slots.

Now the question that’s caused more rows on the London Celtic Punks Facebook page than the “who hates Maggie Thatcher the most” one. What do you think of Frank Turner? Folk-punk troubadour or spoiled posh brat who hangs around with the royal family?
In answer to your Frank Turner question, from what I’ve heard he’s done quite a lot to give less wealthy musicians a platform. I do like some of his music too. I think it would be churlish to dislike someone on the grounds that they may or may not have had a ‘leg up’ in their chosen cultural or artistic field, that is, if their own brand of art is worth taking heed of. I do, however, have a problem with vapid and vacuous celebrity, especially when its derived from equally facile junk TV shows. Now there’s something to kick against!
That’s it then Under A Banner. Anything you would like to add and people you would like to thank…
 Under A Banner have just embarked on a Spring tour with folk/punk comrades Headsticks. We are also playing festivals right up to Autumn and will continue to write new material. As ever, massive thanks to all the people who’ve connected with us and travelled to see us play live. See you out there.
(have a listen to the latest album from Under A Banner ‘The Wild Places’ by pressing play on the Bandcamp player below)
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ALBUM REVIEW: STEELEYE SPAN- ‘Dodgy Bastards’ (2016)

With the release of Dodgy Bastards, the 23rd studio album of their career Steeleye Span remain one of the most influential names in music. Pioneers of folk-rock, they changed the face of folk music forever. Taking it out of small clubs and into the world of gold discs and international tours. Steeleye Span have remained at the forefront of the genre they helped to define and 38 years later have become an institution in British music.

steeleye span LP

Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were two of the most successful and popular British band’s of their generation. Both bands made their mark on the music scene by taking traditional British folk material and adding rock arrangements, something that hadn’t really been done before and both featured female singers, Sandy Denny for Fairport and Maddy Prior for Steeleye. Both mixed self-penned and traditional songs but it can be argued that it was Steeleye Span who went on to have a much more lasting effect on the folk-rock scene and indeed on music in general too. At their peak Steeleye Span’s revolving door of members certainly kept their fans on their toes but the one constant in the band has always been the ethereal voice of Maddy Prior that gave the band their identity at all the different phases of their existence. The major difference between the bands was that Fairport came to traditional folk from a rock background, whereas Steeleye Span arrived from the opposite direction.

steeleyespan-band

Formed at the beginning of 1970 in in Winchester, Hampshire that original line-up included Ashley Hutchings, at the time bassist in Fairport Convention, who had wanted to pursue a more traditional folk direction and so left them and joined forces with future Pogue Terry Wood, who had been in a trad Irish group called Sweeney’s Men, Maddy Prior, who had been in a folk duo with guitarist Tim Hart and Gay Woods (Terry’s wife) to become the starting line up of Steeleye Span. Lasting only one album Terry and Gay soon left and were replaced by Martin Carthy, one of the most respected artists on the folk circuit. While Bob Dylan fought his own fans and the critics to introduce electric guitar into folk music in the mid-1960’s Martin Carthy was instrumental in taking Steeleye Span in the same direction. They may have played folk music but they played it damn loud! Hutchings and Carthy left by the end of 1971 and while the loss of their two most influential members would cripple most bands the ‘Span not only drove on but actually entered into their most successful stage. Tim Hart was quoted as saying that the group wanted to

“put traditional music back into current musical language — to make folk music less esoteric”

New bassist Rick Kemp became Maddy Prior’s husband and in 1973, they added drums for the first time to the band. With the revolving door of players, artists as famous as David Bowie and even Peter Sellers guested on their albums. Their first major hit came with the Christmas song ‘Gaudette’ reaching #14 in the British music charts and in 1975, they released their huge smash hit ‘All Around My Hat’ which charted all over the world and made them big players everywhere. With the coming of punk and new wave in 1977, they took on even more traditional elements with the return of Martin Carthy, and the addition of John Kirkpatrick on accordion. Sadly though they split the following year. However they periodically reunited while pursuing their own projects and the occasional studio album appeared while the group performed at festivals and toured with enough regularity making it confusing whether they were a band that was together or not. They had a strong and large enough fan base that remained extremely loyal to them ensuring that whatever they did they always had an audience to hear it. Of all the ‘Span members it was Terry Woods who went on to have the most success playing mandolin in The Pogues while Martin Carthy may not have had the commercial success of Terry Woods but certainly commanded great respect

“If the English folk revival of the 1960s had a single “father” and guiding spirit, then Martin Carthy was it”

Maddy Prior’s most notable work was her recordings with the respected folk singer June Tabor. Tim Hart released a handful of notable solo outings before retiring to the Canary Islands, where he sadly passed away after a long battle with cancer in 2009.

steeleye-span-band-2

So all this, and that intro could easily have run into several thousand’s of words (have a look at their Wikipedia page here to see how!), lands us in 2016 and Steeleye Span’s new album. Dodgy Bastards is their 23rd album release is a mixture of self penned songs, traditional songs and some original tunes put to traditional lyrics. The group today consists of Prior, Kemp, drummer Liam Genockey, guitarist Julian Littman, fiddler Jessie May Smart, and Andrew ‘Spud’ Sinclair, who was filling in for six-year member Pete Zorn before Zorn passed away from cancer in April 2016. The main inspiration for Dodgy Bastards is taken from the work of the 19th century American Francis James Child. Starting in 1860 Child began to anthologize over 300 traditional ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants. Their lyrics and his studies of them were published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The themes were often dark and thought not suitable for the times containing such subjects as diverse as romance and half-human creatures or enchantment and forbidden love. The abuse of authority and the depiction of very real historical events and the boldness of outlaws and folk heroes made these songs dangerous to the authorities.

Dodgy Bastards begins with ‘Cruel Brother’ and from the start we have a song about a man who kills his sister! It’s classic Steeleye and starts with just the voices of the band before it kicks off. It’s certainly gentle and even hard to believe that this was classed as folk-rock back in the day but it’s catchy and extremely well played and Maddy’s voice is still as striking as ever. Lasting almost eight minutes it never outlasts it’s welcome and if you think this was gentle then ‘All Things Quite Silent’ takes it down further. Maddy’s voice dominates over a simple backing of guitar and fiddle. ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ is the story of Scottish raider and folk-hero Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, who was captured and hanged by King James V in 1530. Big and gutsy, again it lasts over seven minutes. This is powerful stuff and the words can be dated to before 1724. This leads us nicely into the only song here I knew before, ‘Boys of Bedlam’. Loud and bombastic and with great fiddle and guitar.

(not the version on Dodgy Bastards but still worth a spin)

Recorded by Steeleye before as a simple folk version above here they give it plenty of welly and show those folk-rock credentials loud and proud even including a rap from Alex Prior, son of Maddy and Rick. Unrecognisable next to the earlier version from 1971 album  Please To See The King. The sleeve notes say of the song

“Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem at Bishopsgate founded in 1247 became the male lunatic asylum known as Bethlehem Hospital or Bedlam in 1547. In 1815 it was moved to Lambeth in the buildings now housing the Imperial War Museum and in 1931 was moved to Kent. The hospital of St. Mary Magdalen was its female counterpart. During the 16th and 17th centuries the man in the moon was depicted as a bent old man with a staff leading a dog, carrying a thorn bush and lantern”

It’s an album standout for me though that’s hardly surprising I’m sure. On ‘Brown Robyn’s Confession’ recent addition to the band Jessie May Smart takes on the lead vocal before the distinct tones of Maddy joins her during the superb chorus. Another unusual tale this time of a ship’s captain and his men who go to sea and encounter a terrible storm. They cast lots to learn who is to blame, and it is Brown Robyn himself who is thrown overboard with him admitting that he has fathered children with both his mother and sister. Before he drowns he sees the Virgin Mary, who offers to let him come to heaven or return to his men. He chooses heaven. Next is ‘Two Sisters’ a murder ballad recounting the tale of a girl drowned by her sister with a great production as it is throughout the album. Accordion is great here and a real foot stomper of a song with Maddy’s voice soaring. The next song is about the dodgiest bastard of them all! A new song penned by Rick ‘Cromwell’s Skull’ clocks in at nearly nine minutes and with a beautiful fiddle solo from Jessie May Smart in the middle.

So now to the title song ‘Dodgy Bastards’ and folk music is jam packed with them and this jig is a full on tribute to them all. Great guitar work and shows exactly what great musicians they all are. Energetic and full of life which is what music should be. No one dies in ‘Gulliver Gentle and Rosemary’ which reminds me of a few songs that became successful in the 70’s/80’s. Them at their most pop friendly they soon return to darker themes with ‘The Gardener’. Nearing the end we have another new song, this time written by Julian, ‘Bad Bones’ in which Steeleye show their humorous side in a story of a right bastard. A totally unrepentant right bastard! The song includes another spoken word/rap and again it doesn’t feel forced or seem out of place. Not many bands could get away with it I tells you. Dodgy Bastards comes to an end with the epic ‘The Lofty Tall Ship/Shallow Brown’, lasting a serious ten minutes. Beginning as a slow ballad before gaining momentum its a is a traditional Scottish folk song about Henry Martin who turned to piracy to support his family. This develops into a beautiful rendition by Maddy of Shallow Brown a West Indian slave song/sea shanty and this then becomes another instrumental that brings the curtain down on this exceptional album with the highlight saved for the end.

(great half hour sampler of the album below)

The album is appropriately titled with its tales of murder, religion, incest, honour killings and tormented spirits and with their 50th anniversary fast approaching it’s simply unbelievable the quality of their work. Their work rate is incredible with Dodgy Bastards their eighth album in twelve years. The stories here are at the very heart of the what we know as Steeleye Span. The album clocks in at a incredible seventy-one minutes and deservedly so as the themes here are not for the short of attention span. Their audience these days may well be the preserve of the middle aged but they show here that they deserve better than to be pigeonholed like that. Constantly innovative and inspiring and as inspirational as ever they need to be heard and any readers here interested in the development of celtic-punk must make Steeleye Span one of their first stops.

Contact The Band

TheOfficialSteeleyeSpanSite  UnofficialSteeleyeSpanHomePage  Facebook  Twitter

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Band Members Sites

Peter Knight  Maddy Prior  Gay Woods  Troy Donockley

ALBUM REVIEW: RUNA- ‘Live’ (2016)

Timeless, flawless, innovative and award-winning Irish-American Celtic roots music.

RUNA Live

After four superb studio albums the brilliant Runa release a live album, imaginatively titled Live, that captures perfectly the sound of this amazing band. With a pedigree second to none, made up of vocalist and step-dancer, Shannon Lambert-Ryan of Philadelphia, Dublin-born guitarist, Fionán de Barra, Cheryl Prashker of Canada on percussion, Dave Curley of Galway on mandolin, vocals, bodhrán, and step-dancing, and Maggie Estes of Kentucky on the fiddle they are surely bound to hit the heights again with this album and they have deservedly earned their reputation as one of the most innovative and unique Irish bands of recent times.

Claude was a evangelical preacher, faith healer and singer-songwriter who helped popularise the music of the Appalachian mountains and was one of the fore-runners of the birth of rock’n’roll. Great percussion here keeping a fantastic beat while Shannon’s beautiful voice confers the greatest respect for Claude’s music. The opening song contains all those elements that make Runa such an interesting band. Based in the music of the celtic nations there is so much going on here that to simply call it celtic music does not give you anything like the full story. ‘

“Still I sing bonnie boys, bonnie mad boys,
Bedlam boys are bonnie
For they all go bare and they live by the air,
And they want no drink nor money”

In the 18th century it became a popular diversion to visit the hospital to watch the antics of the poor inmates. Admission was one penny and the hospital realized an income of four hundred pounds a year from visitors. The song Fionán de Barra takes over vocal duties and murderer. Excellent fiddle and a real thigh slapper that gets the audience here really involved and singing along.

“False Sir John’s a wooing gone
To a maid o’ beauty fair
May Colven was this lady’s name
Her faither’s only heir”

“Then myself and a hundred more to America sailed o’er
Our fortunes to be making we were thinking
When we landed in Yankeeland they shoved a gun intae our hand
Saying, Paddy you must go and fight for Lincoln

General Meagher to us said, If you get shot and lose your head
Every mother’s son of you will get a pension
In the war I lost my leg, all I’ve now is a wooden peg
By my soul it is the truth to you I mention

Now I think myself in luck to be fed on Indian buck
In old Ireland the country I delight in
And with the devil I do say, Oh Christ curse America
For I’m sure I’ve had enough of your hard fighting”

One of the saddest of the Irish emigration songs it is unusual in that songs of that time were written by the people escaping the ‘famine’ back home and extolling the virtues of the ‘land of liberty’. To put it glibly ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. Truly not every man is a king in the US of A. Fionán takes over the lead vocals again and his whispered hushed tones fits perfecting the sadness in the song. ‘The stereotype of whale fishermen is a of a hairy chested, hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting men of the sea and while, no doubt the description fitted many of them, they often showed a strong liking for gentle ballads like these. The first parts tells the whalefishers story while part two tells of how closely we came to the extinction of this majestic animal.

“My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
For the beauty around me pales and I am screaming
I am the last of the Great Whales and I am dying”

1947 between a young boy and a false knight (the devil in disguise). The child gets the better of him and damns him back down to hell. Steeleye Span, Oysterband, The Blue Velvet Band have all recorded the song and here Runa give it as good as anyone with Shannon’s vocals shining out. So ends Set One and begins Set Two.

RUNA inside

All rested Runa return to rapturous applause and kick off their set with fiddler and composer born to a Irish musical family in Chicago, Illinois. next up is ‘

“Mhí mise lán den tsaoil is bhi cion amuigh is istigh orm
Nach mór a dáthraigh an saol nuair nach bhfuil eion ag duine ar
bith orm? / At one time in my life I was dearly loved by everyone
Haven’t times changed when no one cares a whit for me?”

(“Fine girl you are!”) version beloved by Irish pub dwellers worldwide but another less well known song written by Gerry O’Beirne about a man who leaves Ireland and ends up in the America southwest, eventually dying fighting and dying for the Mexican Army in the San Patricio Battalion (St Patrick Brigade).

“There the winds of change they blew so far
Of liberty and revolution
And it seemed that each man heard in his breast
the drumming of a nation”

Robert Dwyer Joyce

“Twas hard the mournful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us
Ah, but harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us
And so I said, ‘The mountain glen
I’ll seek at morning early
And join the brave united men’
While soft wind shook the barley”

and Aoibhneas Eilís Ní Cheallaigh/ Filleadh An Bhadora

Discography

Jealousy (2009) * Stretched On Your Grave (2011) * Somewhere Along The Road (2012) * Current Affairs (2014)

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  • For the review we published of the last Runa studio album Current Affairs check here
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