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Catching Up With The Incredible String Band

This fall, almost exactly 30 years after their September 1974 breakup, the Incredible String Band reunited to tour the U.S., Britain and Europe with a lineup that features original members Mike Heron and Clive Palmer (but not Robin Williamson), and keyboardist Lawson Dando. Heron, interviewed by phone in Atlanta recently, said that concerts have focused on what he calls "the strong core material" from the band's first six albums, for the first time ever.

The reunion kicked off at a New Year's celebration in Edinburgh in 2000, when festival promoters signed up Williamson and Palmer for a show, then asked Heron to join them so that the band could be billed as the Incredible String Band. Heron agreed, and the concert was scheduled. However, when the three played the traditional country and jug band music that brought them together, fans hungered for classic Incredible String Band tunes like "Chinese White," "Ducks on a Pond" and "A Very Cellular Song," all tracks that hadn't been played consistently since their heyday in the 1960s.

Heron began adding his older songs into the set lists during a series of UK concerts that spanned 2000 to 2002, but bandmate Williamson refused. "In the latter stages, it got to the point where I was doing all my old songs, and he was doing all new songs," remembered Heron. "So it was kind of hard, when people would travel hundreds of miles to hear 'The First Girl I Loved' and we just wouldn't do it." Because of that difference in direction, coupled with Williamson's family obligations, Williamson left the tour in 2002, and Heron and Palmer continued.

While Heron admits that he misses Williamson's contribution, he says that the experience of performing older Incredible String Band songs has been uplifting — and novel. "In the nine years we were going, we made 13 albums. It wasn't unusual then. People did that kind of thing," he explained. "So every time we played, we were doing the new material from the new album on Warner Bros. or Elektra or whoever we were signed to at that time. So the strong stuff didn't get played that much, maybe five or six times. So it's been great to be playing the strong stuff in a chunk. A solid hour and a half."

All of the songs in the set have been rearranged for the current, smaller configuration of the Incredible String Band, with just Heron, Palmer and Dando touring (for UK dates and the upcoming record Nebulous Nearness, the band expands to include a violinist and a bass player). In addition, they've been slightly adapted to avoid the staleness that sometimes comes from revisiting old songs.

"It Could Be," for instance, now strides a banjo cadence, which serves as the rhythmic underpinning of the song; other familiar songs have been similarly reinterpreted. "We play what the fans want to hear, plus a little bit more," Heron said. "It's the material they want to hear that could have been done in a kind of churned-out way, but it's done in a fresh way with new ideas in there."

These core songs were mostly written in the mid-to-late 1960s, during a fruitful and exceptionally experimental period in psychedelic music. The Incredible String Band began with roots in traditional country and jug band music, and their first album, 1966ís The Incredible String Band, was heavily influenced by these styles. The band broke up briefly afterwards, as banjoist Clive Palmer traveled to Afghanistan and Williamson to Morocco. Williamson returned with a collection of exotic instruments and a fascination with world music, and when the Incredible String Band resumed, they became far more experimental.

"At that time, the climate was such that adventure in music was really expected," Heron recalled. "Our manager ran UFO, a club in London, and they had bands like Pink Floyd and the Move and sitar players and modern classical quartets — all kinds of music were accepted. And out of this climate came Sergeant Pepper and Her Majesty's Request and Pink Floyd. We were right in the middle of that whole psychedelic thing...which was great for creativity and for trying new things."

Heron says that he and Williamson, fresh from the country, were once invited to an apartment in London, where several young men sat playing guitars. One musician asked them to jam, and attempting to be "cool," Heron turned them down. "It was Eric Clapton," said Heron. "We felt a bit silly about that later."

With their second album, 5000 Spirits, the Incredible String Band began to explore the fantastical childhood narratives and subtle mood shifts that became their signature style. "I was interested in creating the kind of journey when you took acid...'Cellular Song' is like that, where it goes through these slightly dark moods and comes out at the end with a goodwill prayer to the world."

During this period, the Incredible String Band shared stages with bands like Pink Floyd, Cream, and many others. They appeared at Woodstock in 1969, a performance many fans found disappointing. "By the time we got to Woodstock, we were doing fairly obscure tracks from our later albums, and we didn't do anything from our first six albums at Woodstock."

In the late 1960s, both Heron and Williamson — and their respective girlfriends — became involved in Scientology, a shift that many people believe signaled the end of the band's most creative period. Also, as the music industry became dominated by large-scale stadium tours, the Incredible String Band found themselves an increasingly poor fit with the zeitgeist. On their last tour, they opened for Three Dog Night in a series of football arenas, a setting that neutralized their traditionally strong communication and connection with fans. Yet long after their breakup in 1974, the Incredible String Band continued to influence musicians, and today many of the people involved in the psychedelic folk movement — Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Espers, Jack Rose and the members of the Animal Collective — draw inspiration from it.

Bobby Matador of the band Oneida, which once named a song "Rose & Liquorice" after two female members of the Incredible String Band, says "No band has more failed imitators than ISB in the indie world. I mean, they really invented the world of psychedelic folk, and originally pulled it off in a way that nobody has approached in 35 years, except maybe Animal Collective or Tower Recordings."

He added, "Personally, I discovered them by buying a bunch of one-dollar LPs at a library book sale, just out of curiosity, and having my mind blown. I immediately went on an ISB rampage, and fortunately this was at a time when it was easy to find their records for cheap in any record store. I got obsessed, turned my bandmates on to them, and we went ahead and wrote/recorded our Anthem of the Moon album under a serious ISB haze. They're basically responsible for all the weird acoustic songs that have cropped up on our albums since then, as well as for my growing collection of odd acoustic instruments."

More cryptically, but with enthusiasm, Devendra Banhart added this tribute to the Incredible String Band, "Happy Birthday! not noodlemisters but Epic lizard man songs traversing the new universe holding sarods, our old hopes tightly, fiddles, chimes, udes, bagpipes, baby boars, banjos, mead, invisible ropes and on and on OH in this sweetcheese pond lies a perfect reflection of trueTRUE love! Happy Birthday Old Baby!"

The Incredible String Band are touring the U.S. through the end of October, before moving to the UK in November and Spain in December (for a complete list of dates and venues, see www.incrediblestringband.com). In conjunction with their tour, the Incredible String Band have released Nebulous Nearness, their first official live album ever, on Amoeba Recordings. Recorded in Peter Gabriel's Real World Studio in front of a live audience of 200 people, the album — like the current show — pulls together many of the band's most popular songs. In addition, Clive Palmer just released a new solo album called All Roads Lead to Land on Communion Records on October 12. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, October 18, 2004]

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