There they went a-wassailing. Steeleye Span were, indeed, six at the Barbican on Monday - except when they were joined on stage by John Spiers and Martin Carthy. Dodgy picture alert (Maddy Prior was at the back trying to look inconspicuous during an instrumental and the battery on my camera ran out before I had a chance to take anything with the zoom. Sorry 'bout that.)
They played the whole of Now we are Six, starting with 700 Elves, dedicated Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Professor Brian Cox because "there's a lot he could learn from this song" and then introduced the "and friends" part of the evening...
At that point things got temporarily a little less festive - though there were three people in the front row wearing tinsel halos who may well have disagreed. The Strawbs sang something with a chorus that repeated "May you rot" over and over again, which seemed a bit bah humbug under the circumstances. They also used a line that I've heard referred to (by Peter Knight at a Gigspanner gig) as the Broughton/Dempsey disclaimer - after Joe Broughton and Kevin Dempsey - offering the audience the opportunity to return their CD by post if they didn't like it "and we'll send you one that we don't like". Ordinarily I find it funny but on this occasion it mainly made me wonder about its provenance. I first heard it from Joe Broughton at an Urban Folk Quartet gig and, sure enough, he laid claim to it later by email, adding that he sometimes had to stop using lines when they became too widely passed around. However he couldn't recall specific examples, as he was "very hungover on an Austrian tour". Prost... I guess jokes are like songs and the folk process also applies.
The second half was great, especially for the delicate The Two Constant Lovers, in beautiful five or six part harmony, with a bathetic intro by Knight describing the lovely woman on the cliff edge looking out to sea as if she were about to leap. "Then in the fourth verse she does."
John Spiers and Martin Carthy joined the band on stage for the Padstow Mayday song recalling, for me from my days as a baby reporter, the controversy that singing that song on any day apart from Mayday causes in the town. John Buckingham of the Padstow museum said, though, that these days they feel benevolent towards the Steeleye version, partly on account of it almost having become a tradition in its own right. "As long as Steeleye Span don't produce an 'obby 'oss and start dancing around the stage they'll be safe," he said. Mind you, they like a bit of controversy in Padstow. This is the place, after all, that celebrates Darkie Day while often claiming that its origins lie in a shipwreck involving a slaver on the shore nearby.
Then there was Bedlam Boys - what an odd song that is, lyrically - and The Lark in the Morning before Carthy and Spiers trooped off - even though Rick Kemp said it might have been more appropriate for Carthy to have remained as it was he who'd brought them Cold Haily Windy Night in the first place.
Later on, when Spiers - a good 25 years younger than everyone else on the stage - returned with Carthy for the finale he looked so electrified by being that close to Maddy Prior while she was singing All Around My Hat (followed by a seasonal Gaudete) that he almost forgot to come in.
And that's the thing about Steeleye Span. They've been around for over four decades now and watching them recalls nearly a lifetime of memories for most of their audience: an entire lifetime for the younger members. It's hard to disentangle what's theirs and what's your own. It just ended up feeling like ours and I can't think of anything more apposite at this bittersweet time of year.
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