“We’d been waiting years for a tribute band,” joked Mike Heron, of the semi-legendary British psych-folk group The Incredible String Band, midway through the band’s set. “But nobody seemed up to the task!”
So there they were, the Incredible String Band, playing a slightly under-attended set for an audience of aging folkies and curious hipsters in Denver’s Larimer Lounge. Yes, the tale of The Incredible String Band is a long and strange one. They’re the most obscure band to play the original Woodstock festival, the makers of several bona fide psychedelic masterpieces, (The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam and The Big Huge to name a few), the only band to ever boast a member named Licorice, and the only band, as far as I know, to dedicate entire albums to Scientology.
The band’s current incarnation doesn’t deviate from this weirdness. It’s probably a good idea to think of the trio currently touring the US as Heron suggested. They’re a tribute band. Missing is Robin Williamson, undeniably a primary creative force during the band’s original 1965-74 run. He’s played the occasional reunion gig with Heron in the UK, but opted out of this tour. Banjo player Clive Palmer is along for the ride as well, but he only appeared on the band’s debut.
So the band’s set only includes Heron and Palmer songs. Kind of like the Beatles reforming, but only playing McCartney and Harrison tunes. Heresy? Well, maybe. But what the hell, life is too short for such quibbles.
On a chilly Saturday night in October Heron and Palmer, two musicians who haven’t played the US for at least thirty years, took the stage, cherry-picking some of the best tunes from their extensive catalog. To complain about the legitimacy of using the Incredible String Band name is just sour grapes. The sight of Heron and Palmer onstage was alone worth the price of admission.
Heron, with his short stature and bright eyes, looked as if he could’ve played Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. The spindly Palmer, on the other hand, seemed positively ancient, as he plucked his banjo with impossibly long fingers. Throughout the night, Palmer wore a mischievous grin. It was hard to tell whether he was having the time of his life or if he was utterly embarrassed.
Standouts included a sprightly, slide-guitar laden “Hedgehog’s Song”, the Palmer-led “Ducks on a Pond” and a jaunty reading of “Everything’s Fine Right Now”.
The band struggled with dodgy monitor levels, off-key harmonies and out of tune instruments, but their shambolic presence was more often endearing than not. This clearly wasn’t a slick reunion, all for the cash.
The original Incredible String Band was never concerned with instrumental virtuosity or conventional song structure. Rather, they were all about making up rules as they went along, fashioning singular, iconoclastic music out of unorthodox material. In this respect, the “new” Incredible String Band captured the original’s essence rather well.
The centerpiece of the show was the band’s ambitious rendition of “A Very Cellular Song”, a tune from The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter that stands as the greatest 13-minute folk song about amoebas ever recorded. I suppose there’s not much competition.
Heron could hardly stop smiling as he sang the song’s joyous finale: “May the long time sun shine upon you/ All love surround you/ And the pure light within you/ Guide you all the way on!” Such lyrics couldn’t come from any decade except the ‘60s, but they sound just as good in 2004.