'Hippy-Dippy' Tour

With help from some newcomers, two original members of the Incredible String Band tour the country

Often nestled in rock history texts between the Impressions and Indigo Girls is a British folk act that remains cherished by its devoted cult of followers 30 years after it dissolved--the Incredible String Band.

Revered on both sides of the Atlantic, the band never fell from favor, even as its LPs became harder and harder to find. Then, in 2000, the original trio of guitarist Mike Heron, banjo player Clive Palmer and fiddler Robin Williamson regrouped to play a series of gigs for which they play sets generously stocked with old jug band music and traditional folk tunes.

"We played the kind of stuff we played before we were the String Band," said Heron by phone from his Glasgow home a few weeks ago. "It was really about the music, not about the band."

By 2002, Williamson had wearied of the old stuff and wanted to return to making new music--he had enjoyed a thriving solo career in the years since the ISB broke up--so he left the band again.

Heron and Palmer miss their old compatriot, but they have gamely soldiered on with Welsh keyboardist Lawson Dando, bassist Gavin Dickie and a female multi-instrumentalist and vocalist named Fluff, who is young enough to be Heron's daughter.

That is the lineup that will turn up at Tucson's Solar Culture Gallery for a gig on Tuesday, Oct. 5.

It's one of 30 North American dates in 32 days. This intense assault will take the Incredible String Band to many parts of the United States that it has not visited before, Heron said.

"Back in the original band days, where we were strong in the United States were the East Coast and the New York areas and in New Jersey. We actually split up in 1974 on an American tour in New York.

"We never made it much on the West Coast, although in San Francisco, we did play the Fillmore West there."

Heron said he's delighted that his group of old "hippy-dippy" folkies will be playing in a Tucson venue known for avant-garde, punk and alternative music, as well as being a working community art gallery. These days, that's not uncommon for the ISB.

"We've actually gotten a lot of support from younger listeners and the punk-rock community, because we play music that is raw and unrefined," said Heron, who also has penned tunes for the likes of Bonnie Tyler and Manfred Mann.

Nobody's going to mistake the musicians of the Incredible String Band for virtuosos--their music is less for the concert hall than it is for the porch and parlor--but they play with a genuine love. Their music is like a homemade pie--not as neat around the edges, but a lot more tasty and less processed than Hostess.

In fact, music industry types have emerged from their estates and garages of late to voice approval for the Incredible String Band. Their professed fans include such figures as Robert Plant and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus.

Makes sense, considering the vast influence the ISB has exerted on such acts from art rockers to roots and folk musicians.

The ISB recorded a baker's dozen of albums in nine years back in the 1960s. Their new one, Nebulous Nearnesses, is an attempt to update the songs on those records with 21st-century technology while retaining a robust, old-timey quality.

Featuring re-recordings of past tunes, it was recorded live-in-the-studio before an invited audience 100-strong in Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in rural Wiltshire. "It was amazing to have a studio that big and have an audience that attentive as we recorded in the round," Heron said.

It provides a potent example of the ISB charm that will be displayed on the current tour, which focuses primarily on the band's first six albums, Heron said. Classics such as "Chinese White," "Ducks on a Pond," "Log Cabin Home in the Sky" and "The Hedgehog's Song."

The live shows will include a full version of Heron's 13-minute epic "A Very Cellular Song," which until this tour has not been performed in its entirety since 1968.

On record, the extended tune proves where bands like Yes and the Moody Blues found inspiration for lengthy, classicist excursions with twee-medieval leanings, complete with harpsichord. Also, evident on Nebulous Nearnesses is the ISB's affection for leaping gnome and misty-mountain fabling.

Some things never go out of fashion.

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