Wednesday, April 06, 2011

both Steeleye Span and Raagnagrok in a single evening

Last weekend (April 1st—3rd) saw the UK's first multidisciplinary conference on psychedelics, "Breaking Convention", held at Kent University's recently built Woolf College... 500+ people from all over the planet, 80+ speakers, Skype talks from Stan Grof, Ralph Metzner and Ram Dass...almost too much to take in in a single weekend.

There was also music during evening social events on the Saturday and Sunday. I missed out on part of the Saturday night event, as I'd bought a ticket weeks ago for Steeleye Span's gig that night (also on the UKC campus at the Gulbenkian Theatre), so detached from the temporary population of psychonauts, chemists, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, philosophers, psychotherapists and multidimensional misfits to join a very different crowd of old folkies for a couple of hours.

The crowd was uniformly about 20 years older than me, quite conservative looking (despite some no doubt colourful pasts among them)...I almost felt like I was there representing the band's (indirectly) psychedelic roots, in my faded tye-die shirt. So I was very happy when they came out and launched into the translated Danish traditional ballad "700 Elves" (after which Maddie Prior made a joke about the elves as 'eco-warriors'... I couldn't help thinking of the approximately 700 people who'd descended on that hilltop that weekend for the conference). She then explained that for their first set, they were going to reproduce their 1974 And Now We Are Six album in its entirety. She explained that they'd come up with the idea since the latest lineup is a six-piece and that "It seemed like a good idea at the time". It seemed like a great idea to me, because the next piece was the wonderful "Drink Down the Moon" (check the comparable version from their 35th anniversary tour here). I was sitting in the middle of the middle block of seats in the auditorium, so it felt like Maddie was singing directly to me at times. It was immediately apparent that (despite what you might think, after four decades, and now playing to comfortable middle-class audiences in polite theatres and arts centres), they've not lost that edge of wild, witchy earth magick that they could summon at the peak moments. I'm unashamed to say that this band of old folkies filled my heart with joy!

Their playing this album also meant we got "Long a Growing" (a ballad which Pentangle also recorded, although with an entirely different melody, and a different title, too, I think), and the classic "Thomas the Rhymer". There are a few oddities on the record too (Peter Knight joked about how they'd been "off their heads" when making it, "smoking a lot of marijuana", etc.): a medley of riddles and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" sung in high-pitched children's voices (credited to the "St. Eleye School Choir") and a cover of The Teddy Bears' "To Know Him is to Love Him" (written by Phil Spector). The first two were reworked with just Maddie's voice and Peter's violin (plucked on the first, and utterly transcendent on the latter, with a long, tripped-out solo between the second and third verses — and, yes, Maddy was able to sing this silly little song about as beautifully as anyone ever has or ever will). The keyboard and saxophone that I'd noted with some alarm on stage before the show started turned out to be there solely for "To Know Him is to Love Him". It was explained that around 1974, they were doing "rock 'n' roll encores" — coming out in 50's fancy dress, wigs, etc. for their encores and performing rock 'n' roll numbers, including this one... hence its seemingly incongruous inclusion on the album. I hadn't realised that David Bowie played a plastic toy saxophone on the original. We got long-time Richard Thompson sideman Pete Zorn playing a proper sax instead (he effortlessly switched between acoustic guitar, mandolin and flute during the gig, as well as providing backing vocals). It was a bit weird hearing Maddy sing with a slight American twang, but it was still enjoyable to hear them do that one.

Rick Kemp joked about aging, his back pain, etc., while Peter Knight lamented his loss of eyesight, unable to read some solo gig dates off a flyer he'd brought along (he'd forgotten his reading glasses). Maddie cheerfully helped him out, and he mused that "If I'd have known I was going to live this long, I'd have looked after it is, we all just have to help each other out." Keeping in that spirit, before the set break, Maddie mentioned that she'd be selling raffle tickets in the lobby to raise money for Martin Carthy (a friend who was briefly part of the band in its early days), who's unable to work at the moment as his wife, Norma Waterson, is ill. So I went over to her little table, had a chat while writing my contact details on a book of five tickets (I fought off the temptation to ask for an (urgh) autograph, but really I'd just have liked to give her a big hug for providing the world with 40+ years of musical enchantment). Such a lovely soul.

Liam Genockey (who I've recently realised is the drummer with the braided beard who plays with Robert Wyatt in the Free Will and Testament documentary) did a fabulous job behind the drums — I've since learned that he played in an early 70's 'Afro-Prog' band called ZZebra with ex-members of both If and Osibisa...there's an African dimension to his playing, lots of brushes and percussive subtlety, not overly 'rock' — this is good! The latest new member to the ever evolving Steeleye fold is Julian Littman on lead guitar — he's from the Richard Thompson/Jerry Donahue/Trevor Lucas school of English folk-rock Stratocaster players, and apart from a couple of arguably unnecessary solos, was spot on throughout.

The second set was more varied — a few slightly cheesy moments, involving modern pastiche folk-style songs (the sort of thing Fairport do a lot of these days), but some old favourites and unexpected wonders as well. They ended with an appropriately raucous "Bonny Black Hare" (one of the low points in the early Fairport catalogue, but brought to life here by a stomping beat, raw overdriven violin and lusty vocals), then came back for a predictable, yet still wonderful, encore of their Status-Quo-gone-folk anthem "All Around My Hat", during which the audience got to enthusiastically belt out an unaccompanied chorus (we did rather well, I thought).

The highlight, though (along with "Cold, Haily, Windy Night", from the Martin Carthy era Please to See the King LP), was my all-time favourite, "Cam Ye O'er Frae France". Maddie didn't get up to any of the skirt-twirling, skipping around the monitors in her plymsoles that she sometimes does, just a bit of dignified grooving-on-the-spot, but she managed a graceful little dance during this one. It was a powerfully understated version, lacking the ultra-abrasive bursts of electric guitar which animate the studio version. But I got my fill of ultra-abrasive electric guitar less than an hour later, over in Darwin College bar, where Mark Pilkington's heavy psych-drone improv group Raagnagrok were playing to the Breaking Convention attendees (and a few dozen confused students who happened to be drinking there!) The lineup was just Mark on throbbing analogue electronics, a guitarist/oboist, plus my old friend Dr. Dr. Andy 'Shroom' Letcher (University of the Hedge) guesting most effectively on English bagpipes. A super heavy, trance-inducing set that basically took that little bit of electric noise on "Cam Ye" and unfolded it into 45 minutes of transcendence. Woah!


Anonymous Silke said...

hey Matthew,
seems to me you had some packed but very colourful days. it's enjoyable to read your descriptions!
love from berlin in bloom

7:36 PM  

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