Live at Hebden Bridge Picture House on Saturday, 4th October 2003
"You may have gathered by now that we're a bit of a nostalgia act" quoth Mike Heron after a oddly banterless opening of two ISB classics, "you might say we are our own tribute band", well, yes, but I for one couldn't have asked for anything more. And when he goes on to say that they "won't be getting much past the first five albums" my grin is almost as big as his, which doesn't falter all night long and which I couldn't wipe off his face even if I had a fish in one hand and a dish in another.
For those of you unacquainted with The Incredible String Band, formed in the sixties, they were a Scottish 'surrealist' 'folk' (for want of better words) band centred around the song writing duo that made Lennon and McCartney cower in the corner: Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. The rest of the band comprised of two female multi-instrumentalists, Rose and Licorice, and with various others dropping in for the fun, the ISB made a string of innovative and awe-inspiring albums challenging the mainstream ideals of song writing and approaches to recording and pop instrumentation. From the dawn of the seventies however, the band began to take a different approach, veering more towards the rock style of that decade. One can understand my delight then at hearing that I was basically in for a greatest hits of the greatest hits, somewhat steering clear of the shadier part of the band's career.
The line-up tonight is somewhat different to that of '69, as Robin Williamson is off doing other things, and Rose and Licorice are nowhere to be seen. Instead we have an aged Mike Heron, an aged Clive Palmer (one of the bands founding members), another old chap in full Shared Earth hippy garb (my apologies but I didn't catch his name) and a youngster going by the name of 'Fluff', the addition of whom I think, has added a strength that would have been seriously lacking had she not been there. Also, her mastery of such a wide array of instruments is staggering and has to be seen to be believed.
Surrounded by a swarm of musical instruments: violins, guitars, keyboards, banjos, a mandolin-type thing, Chinese bells, rhythm egg, recorder, penny whistle, rain tube, a cello, a bass guitar, a dulcimer?, mic-stand-mounted kazoos, various hand drums and a squeeze box affair amongst other strange instruments never before seen, the scene would no doubt have most under the age of 40 running for their bars, beats, and bottles of WDK, and indeed this is the effect it seems to have had, as a look around revealed more white hair, beards and mum-bums than I have probably ever seen in a picture house.
I was going to this gig a little dubious, I must admit, after seeing a haggard-goat-Dylan play in Sheffield a couple of years back, I was thoroughly convinced that the same tired game would be played tonight but was eager to see what remained of what I believe to be one of, if not the, greatest band of all time. My assumptions were disproved. As the band made their way through a set of mostly Heron songs, though one may have gotten the impression of an old band sounding a little rusty or loose, I think that what a delighted bunch of Hebden Bridgers got treated to last night was about as close to the sixties 'String Band experience as you could get: the loose, free, and somewhat improvised sound being part of the band's attraction. Although vocal delivery was often a tad shaky, and was arguably at its worst when Clive Palmer took the microphone for a couple of Williamson songs, even this slight downfall with the band's sound could not sully the glorious 'Ducks on a Pond' with its kazooerrific, stomping climax.
Another feature of the ISB's sound that manages to keep me returning to their records again and again is that they have managed, on each and every record I have heard, to maintain a certain diversity throughout an album, this was not certainly lacking last night as, alongside the main songs, we were treat to a lovely solo rag-time-folk-banjo piece from Clive Palmer and a notably Scottish-folk-flavoured duet with Clive on some sort of bag-pipe instrument and Fluff on her violin, at first following the melody, once established, but then providing a beautiful counter melody. And with the constant swapping, chopping and changing of instruments, the shared-out lead vocal duties and the inherent style of their material: often crushingly simple, often overwhelmingly complex, with shifts and unexpected turns of song executed to a tee.
Oh me, oh my, were there tears in my eye?
As the band brought the set to a close with Heron's 1968 13 minute masterpiece 'A Very Cellular Song', each seeming to be enjoying themselves far too much for people of that age, and with Mike Heron's voice taking on it's most confident delivery of the evening, they were met with a standing ovation that forced them back on stage to perform a storming 'Black Jack Davy' which left the whole audience grinning like fools and me with just one word in my head...