collective promoting celtic music especially celtic-punk and unofficial Celtic supporters club for drunx, punx 'n' vagabonds!
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 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.
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.
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.
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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.
Live begins with Set one and opening track the eerie ‘Ain′t No Grave’ written by Claude Ely in the 1930’s. 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. ‘The Hunter Set’ is the first of many traditional reels on Live and is utterly brilliant. First appearing on their last album Current Affairs it is a lively fiddle led collection of tunes centred around hunting from across North America.
Follows is another old song ‘Bedlam Boys’ but this time from the 1720’s! First published in 1720 in Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills To Purge Melancholy and has changed only slightly since. Most notably recorded by Steeleye Span and Martin Carthy the song relates to ex-inmates of Bedlam which was the name given to the famous insane asylum, St. Mary Bethlehem hospital in London.
“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 ‘Fionnghuala’ is a beautiful acapello version of the Scottish Gaelic song that was originally sung by working women to break the monotony. Most famously recorded by the Bothy Band on their 1976 album Old Hag You have Killed Me. Guitarist Fionán de Barra takes over vocal duties and Runa’s version doesn’t stray too far from the Bothy Band’s but would find it hard to top. Shannon gives an interesting intro to ‘Mae Colven’ about a Scottish women turning the tables on her would be 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”
‘Paddy′s Lamentations’ will be known to many having been recorded numerous times and having featured on the soundtrack for the hit film Gangs Of New York. Dating back to the American Civil War (1861-65) it tells of an Irish soldier conscripted into Lincoln’s Union Army crippled in the fighting far away from home where he wishes to return but knows in his heart he never will.
“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. ‘Farewell to Tarwathie/ The Last Leviathan’ has two parts, the first a traditional Scottish whaling song while the second part, written by Andy Barnes. 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”
Set One comes to an end with ‘The False Knight Upon The Road’ an English folk song first put down on paper in 1947 telling of a meeting 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.
All rested Runa return to rapturous applause and kick off their set with ‘Jewels on The Ocean/ Michael Connell′s Reel’ is another two parter staring with a slower traditional instrumental before going into Liz Carroll’s upbeat fiddle led song that again gets the audience going. Liz is an award winning Irish American fiddler and composer born to a Irish musical family in Chicago, Illinois. next up is ‘The King′s Shilling’ and although it may easily be taken for another ancient traditional song it was i fact written by Ian Sinclair, guitarist and fiddler with Scots folk group trio Mirk, in the 1970’s. The King’s shilling was the coin used to induce young men to join the army. By accepting it was regarded as a binding agreement to join up. ‘A Stór, A Stór, a Ghrá’ is a bitter love story from Donegal sung by Shannon in Irish.
“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?”
‘Seinn O Ho Ro/ The Holy Ground’ is a two part track opening with the slow and sad trad Scots song normally performed unaccompanied while ‘The Holy Ground’ is not the tub-thumping (“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”
Set Two ends with more Irish songs and ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ is up next. written by Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836–1883) it tells of a rebel fighting in the 1798 rebellion preparing to go into battle against the British and explaining to his true love that he may not return.
“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”
Needless to say, this is Ireland after all, it all ends in tragedy and utter sadness. Barley came symbolise the spirit of Irish nationalism which could not be destroyed and would always be reborn stronger than ever before. Runa dispel the blues next with the utterly fantastic ‘The Star of Munster Set’ based around three songs- Drums, Gan Aimh and The Star Of Muster- which begins with a sort of duelling banjo piece with Cheryl’s percussion and drumming and Fionán’s bodhran going hell for leather before some spirited fiddle and mandolin step in. ‘Fear a Bhata/ Aoibhneas Eilís Ní Cheallaigh/ Filleadh An Bhadora‘ is a three part song with the first part (‘The Boatman’) written by Sìne NicFhionnlaigh in the late 19th century who was courting a young fisherman from Uig. The second part is a traditional Irish jig and the final part is written by Fionán. The album comes to an end with another three parter ‘Jealousy/ Dan Breens’s/ Crooked Road To Dublin’. It begins with what Shannon calls their ‘relatively happy song’, written by American artist Claudine Langille it’s followed by a loving tribute to my Grandad’s favourite politician and gunman (and neighbour) Dan Breen and ends in a burst of fiddle and positive exuberance bringing the end to this great album and sending the audience out singing.
Jealousy (2009) * Stretched On Your Grave (2011) * Somewhere Along The Road (2012) * Current Affairs (2014)
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