Personnel: Bob Johnson (vocals, guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, background vocals); Peter Knight (vocals, mandolin, violin, electric violin, piano, organ, background vocals); Rick Kemp (vocals, bass guitar, background vocals); Maddy Prior (vocals, background vocals); Liam Genockey (drums, cymbals).
Audio Mixer: John Etchells.
Recording information: Phoenix Studios, Brampton, Cumbria, England; The Farm Cumbria; The Halls Lewis; The Warehouse Studios, Oxford, England.
Photographers: Chris Sands; David Sands.
After 33 years of re-inventing British folk music, Steeleye Span has taken on the arduous task of re-inventing themselves. Present: The Very Best Of gives the false impression of being just another career retrospective, when, in reality, it's much more. Nineteen classics and fan favorites have been re-recorded and, more importantly, re-interpreted by the band in an effort to capture their evolution as live songs -- that's the problem. The current that runs through an audience is what lights up a band, and that wire has been cleanly cut by the flat studio recording presented here. To give the group some credit, they are getting on in years and their forward-thinking attitude is admirable, especially amidst the slew of dinosaurs still hocking their same old wares at state fairs, but it really does sound as if they're on autopilot. The urgency that drove songs like "Come Ye O'er Frae France" and "The Weaver and the Factory Maid" has all but vanished amidst the meandering percussion and pro-tools plug-ins, though Maddy Prior's voice has taken on an elegant theatricality. In fact, her mischievous delivery on songs like "Misty Moisty Morning" and "Hard Times of Old England" makes much of a record far too charming to dismiss completely, and Peter Knight's ambitious violin arrangements pepper the recording with much needed spice. It would be tedious and unfair to weigh each updated version against its blueprint, as these are musicians, who for better or for worse, have let the songs grow with them. Their contributions to the world of British folk-rock grossly outweigh the petty crimes committed here, and if Present had been created by any other band, it would be at the top of every critics' year-end list. ~ James Christopher Monger