Mike Heron - vocals, sitar, organ, guitar, percussion; Robin Williamson - vocals, guitar, gimbri, percussion, whistles, fiddle, woodwinds
The Incredible String Band was a Scottish duo, consisting of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, whose highly eclectic songwriting and early use of exotic instrumentation conveyed a folkish charm and childlike innocence that reflects the 1960's counterculture spirit as well as any other band. Now considered psychedelic-folk pioneers, the seriousness of some of their topics, infused with an inherent innocence, would endear their music to the likes of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
This Fillmore East performance, which was a benefit for New York City's underground free-form radio station, WBAI, an early American supporter of the band, captures the group at their most fascinating and eclectic. Recorded shortly after the release of the groups most revered albums, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam & The Big Huge, this set features much of their most fascinating material performed live in an intimate setting before an appreciative audience.
The set begins with the swirling tapestry of "Waltz Of The New Moon," which incorporates spiritual images of China and India, followed by the more accessible and pastoral, "You Get Brighter," a new track from Wee Tam & The Big Huge.
Next up is a full blown exploration of Mike Heron's "A Very Cellular Song," one of the most adventurous tracks from The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, and considered not only the high point of that album, but one of peaks of the group's career. With a subject of beauty and the interconnected nature of all living things, relayed from the perspective of a single cell, this is truly a tour-de-force performance, incorporating various styles, including West Indian funeral music.
"October Song" continues the lengthy transcendental explorations, followed by more traditional folk fare and innovative "art songs" that are precursors to what today is often referred to as "world music." They return to the more adventurous material with the wonderfully inventive "Duck On The Pond," followed by "Puppies," a song only the ISB could pull off without being accused of creating kitsch. "Chinese White," featuring Williamson playing a lovely bowed gimbri, is another surreal example of how this duo was expanding the boundaries of European folk music and Heron's beautiful lyrical imagery is indeed pure poetry.
The set ends with the extended tone poem "Maya," based on the famous illustration on the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan," a political philosophy, where the head of the sovereign sits on a body composed of smaller bodies.
Listening to this concert and the related 1968 recordings of the ISB, one realizes that Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, although experts at traditional folk song structure, were attempting to free themselves of these musical constraints. This unconventional approach allowed greater depth and exploration in their songs. This aspect of their music is what has continued to reach new fans almost 40 years later.