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Steeleye Span - Below the Salt CD (album) cover


Steeleye Span


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3.66 | 54 ratings

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Easy Livin
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars "Oh God forbid says King Henry that the like betide; that ever a fiend that comes from hell should stretch down by my side"

Following the release of "Ten man mop. . ." in 1972, Steeleye Span once again found themselves two members down with the departure of Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings. The departure of Carthy might have been predictable as he was first and foremost his own man with a successful solo career to fall back on. The departure of band founder Hutchings was however something of a shock, in the league of Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis from a folk rock perspective. The band's future looked somewhat suspect, but carry on they did. Manager Jo Lustig was appointed, who instilled in the band a greater degree of focus. Enter guitarist Bob Johnson and bassist Rick Kemp (but stubbornly still no drummer) who brought with them a renewed freshness and another dimension to the band's sound.

A recording contract was secured by Lustig with the ambitious Chrysalis records, and recording of the band's fourth album, "Below the salt" got underway. The album title is a reference to the dining arrangement at olden days feasts, where the riff raff sat at one end of the table, below the salt. While the songs are all once again traditional, the interpretations here can be more adventurous, indeed progressive, than on previous albums.

The opening "Spotted cow" reassures us that the lead guitar which Carthy brought to the feast will continue in the safe hands of Johnson. While the song still features the traditional folk aspects (as we would expect), the arrangement is much more in the prog folk vein than we have heard from the band up until now, with regular tempo changes and a fine array of instruments. The following "Rosebud in June" features the vocal strength in depth of the band, the song being delivered as a fine multi-part unaccompanied vocal harmony.

The obligatory jigs once again feature the superb violin, banjo and mandolin playing of Peter Knight, the sleeve notes implying that the quoted titles of the pieces may possibly lack accuracy (according to a drunken fan anyway). Yes we've heard it all before on many a Fairport and Steeleye Span album, but such interludes are an integral part of their metabolism. It would be churlish to simply dismiss them, especially as they are so immensely enjoyable.

"Sheepcrook and blackdog" is a song from the English West country, collected by the legendary Scottish folk musician Ewan MacColl. The song slows things down to an emotional dirge with the supreme vocal talents of Maddy Prior taking front and centre stage. Once again, the song features a distinct change as it evolves, with a rare burst of drums (played by Kemp) adding extra meat to the piece. "Royal forester", which closes the first side of the album, dates from the 13th century. It features a simple repeating melody and hey nonny-nonny chorus, the accompanying lead guitar and violin laying down what was quickly becoming the trademark sound of the band.

Side two of the album opens with what for me is the definitive Steeleye Span song. The 7 minute "King Henry" is based on a traditional folk ballad collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century. The song tells the tale of a relationship the king has (or perhaps a bad dream after a night of over indulgence!) with a mysterious woman. It is though the superb prog folk arrangement of the song which renders it an absolutely essential piece. This is Steeleye Span's "Sailor's Life" or "Firth of fifth". If you only ever try one song by Steeleye Span, it must be "King Henry".

"Gaudete" has over the years been something of a double edged sword for the band. It certainly introduced them to a much wider audience when it belatedly became a Christmas hit single a year after the release of the album. At the same time though, it did paint a rather misleading picture of what the band were all about. The album track fades in gradually as if the band are walking from a distance passing by and fading. The song is another a-cappella song, Maddy Prior sounding positively angelic.

The version of the oft covered "John Barleycorn" here is similar to that of Fairport Convention's, these traditional renditions being far more faithful to the drinking roots of the ballad than the rather muddled jazz working by Traffic. The album closes with "Saucy sailor", a shanty delivered by Maddy Prior with an obvious gleam in her eye.

"Below the salt" is probably my favourite Steeleye Span album. Here, the band find a true identity for themselves. The have the courage to take a collection of traditional songs, dust them down and present them in a unique (at the time) way, while retaining the integrity of the melodies. This is traditional prog folk pure and simple.

Easy Livin | 4/5 |


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