AT AGE 70, it’s hardly surprising that Maddy Prior’s voice is under a little pressure these days, or that she might want to nurse it along during live performances, especially ahead of a winter tour with Steeleye Span that begins in a few weeks’ time.
Sharing the burden with two other musicians is therefore a sensible idea and, in Hannah James and Giles Lewin, she has chosen two worthy song-mates for nights such as this. James is a star turn in her own right and comes close to stealing the show from one of British folk’s best-loved figures.
Wreathed in winter clothing and with scarves aplenty around the throat, Prior quite literally sits out chunks of the evening, perched appreciatively on a chair in a corner of the stage as James and Lewin do their own thing.
Not that anyone could have felt shortchanged — the combination of Prior’s gravitas, James’s infectious enthusiasm and Lewin’s accomplished multi-instrumentalism create a balance and variety to proceedings that might have been absent with just Prior on her own.
Add to that the easy and fun-loving relationship between the three and it’s rather like watching a small group of friends entertaining themselves in the back bar of a pub.
The main theme of the evening is birds, also the focus of Prior’s new album Shortwinger, which features James on accordion and Lewin on violin and recorder. Thus we have offerings on starlings (the excellent new song Murmuration), owls (a setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem The Owl) and hawks (Austringer, the term for a keeper of such birds), each prefaced with Prior’s well-informed, if rather jumbled, preambles.
Not all, however, is ornithological and there are a couple of drinking songs, a touching tune called Flying Boy penned by Lewin, Clog Jig — a clog dance written and danced to by James — and, to the satisfaction of many in the audience, a rendition of Prior’s classic The Fabled Hare.
Although the stage is over-amplified, lending a tinny, grating edge to some of the sound, the harmonies are beautiful and James’s voice is to be treasured.
It would be wrong, and disrespectful, to say that she put Prior’s vocal efforts in the shade. Rather, she complemented her mentor’s voice admirably.
But James certainly lent an air of youth and vitality to proceedings and those are two things which, naturally, Prior has less of these days.