November 1968 – The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band – Wee Tam and the Big Huge

By the time the Scottish psychedelic folk group the Incredible String Band began recording their fourth album in the spring of 1968, their audience was growing both in the UK and US having completed successful tours and selling out venues such as the Fillmore and the Royal Albert Hall.  Their March ’68 release, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, was met with critical acclaim.  With the double album Wee Tam and the Big Huge, released 50 years ago this month, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron honed their creative process, and the result is considered by many, along with their previous album, to be their apex.

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L-R:  Mike Heron, Rose Simpson, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie

Williamson and Heron became more involved in each other’s songwriting.  They also became more of a band as opposed to a duo, as girlfriends Christina “Licorice” McKechnie and Rose Simpson took on more significant roles.  Of the fifteen or so instruments played on the record, McKechnie and Simpson contributed on the violin, Irish Harp, percussion, and bass guitar during live performances in addition to their hippie siren backing vocals.  Though not quite as much as its predecessors, Wee Tam is experimental to the point of avant-garde in some places.  Its lyrics are full of allusions to self-awareness, religion, and pagan mythology (they were indeed an influence on Robert Plant).  This was mostly Williamson’s contribution, whereas Heron wrote more simplistically about nature.

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The following summer at Woodstock, (L-R):  Simpson, Heron, McKechnie, and Williamson

The title is an allusion to a small human (Wee Tam) contemplating the vastness of the universe (the Big Huge), and that theme plays out on the album’s four sides.  Unfortunately, Elektra Records released it simultaneously as two separate albums in the US, using the front and back covers for each release.  The result of this decision was the disruption of the work’s continuity, as well as negatively impacting sales.  Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another such example other than Bruce Springsteen releasing two different albums on the same day.  But those were never meant to be a double album, and time has shown they would’ve been better as one single record.  I digress.

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The contrasting approaches of Heron and Williamson mesh really well on this release.  With each listen, I notice different instruments or vocal dynamics I hadn’t heard before.  The songs continue to use a Western folk structure, but are complimented with Eastern sounds of the sitar and sarangi.  The lyrics and backing vocals are exotic instruments in themselves.  The opening track, Job’s Tears, is surreal and serene with Williamson’s vocal intertwined with the backing vocals.  You Get Brighter is another favorite of mine.  Along with its guitar and harpsichord track, I hear a beautiful melody with simple, repeated lyrics:  “Krishna colors on the wall, You taught me how to love you…”  And, the sprawling Maya, which opens the second disc, sets the tone for the remaining tracks which are mostly dominated by Williamson’s surreal lyrics.

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The Wee Tam portion is considered more accessible than the second disc, but to me it’s a cohesive, four-sided,  aery and dreamlike sequence.  It’s considered less ambitious than The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, but not to my ears.  One minute you’re at a ghat in Varanasi hearing sitars wafting in the wind, the next you’re sitting in an ancient Scottish church with a pipe organist playing a mournful dirge.  It takes an investment of time and attention to hear all there is to absorb with it, but not in the same vein of, say, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, other than to say these guys were from some place else, artistically speaking.  As Tony Hardy wrote in his appreciation on consequencesofsound.net:

As much as the playing shimmered with virtuosity, there was also a coy, amateurish side to the band, which was endearing to fans and annoying to everyone else. Their ramshackle approach, particularly on stage, was a real part of the band’s charm and what made them one man’s meat… It is nature’s roller coaster ride. It’s green before its time, haunting and plaintiff, spiritual and uplifting, funny and sad, baffling and informed, and it should be in everyone’s record collection.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Job’s Tears
  2. Puppies
  3. Beyond the See
  4. The Yellow Snake
  5. Log Cabin Home in the Sky

Side Two:

  1. You Get Brighter
  2. The Half-Remarkable Question
  3. Air
  4. Ducks on a Pond

Side Three:

  1. Maya
  2. Greatest Friend
  3. The Son of Noah’s Brother
  4. Lordly Nightshade
  5. The Mountain of God

Side Four:

  1. Cousin Caterpillar
  2. The Iron Stone
  3. Douglas Traherne Harding
  4. The Circle is Unbroken

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Incredible_String_Band

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wee_Tam_and_the_Big_Huge

https://www.allmusic.com/album/wee-tam-the-big-huge-mw0000623666

Guilty Pleasure: The Incredible String Band – Wee Tam and the Big Huge

March ’68 – A Psych-Folk Delight

The Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

One of the more unique albums of 1968 came from one of the more extraordinary groups of the age, The Incredible String Band.  The Scottish group released its third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, in March of that year to high acclaim in the UK where it reached number five on the album chart.  It didn’t fare as well in the U.S. at the time as evidenced by, or perhaps partly because of, an unfavorable review it received in Rolling Stone magazine.  Not surprisingly, it was later given five out of five stars in the Rolling Stone Album Guide (sometimes we Yanks are just a tad behind the times).

This album followed the group’s 1967 gem, The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion, and was somehow even more ambitious.  The versatility of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron can be seen with a glance at the instruments they play on the record:  gimbri, penny whistle, pan pipe, guitar, oud, piano, mandolin, jaw harp, chahanai, water pipe, sitar, Hammond organ, hammered dulcimer, and harpsichord, among others.

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This music contains nuggets of many styles and themes I enjoy listening to:  Scottish music, Indian music, folk, psychedelia, wistful songs of youth and first loves, middle Earth and mythology (ISB was also an early influence on Led Zeppelin).  It’s as if Ravi Shankar and Donovan formed a band.  Or something like that.

I was first introduced to the Incredible String Band about 15 years ago by an aging hippie friend of mine named David.  I was a bit incredulous as he described their greatness and how they had performed at Woodstock, etc.  It had been a while since I’d seen the film, but I couldn’t recall them being in it (they weren’t, nor were a handful of other music legends who took the stage that weekend).  And I most certainly hadn’t heard them on the radio.  David recommended I check out their second and third albums, The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, respectively, and it happened that the CD I found contained both albums in a two-disc set.  I immediately dug it, but the downside was that I didn’t play The Hangman’s… nearly as often as its predecessor until a year or so ago.  I’m now making up for lost time.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Koeeoaddi There
  2. The Minotaur’s Song
  3. Witches Hat
  4. A Very Cellular Song

Side Two:

  1. Mercy I Cry City
  2. Waltz of the New Moon
  3. The Water Song
  4. Three is a Green Crown
  5. Swift As the Wind
  6. Nightfall

Another element of the ISB my friend shared with me was their producer, Joe Boyd.  Boyd was a (then) young American in the UK who produced acts that I would subsequently discover and love, including Fairport Convention, John Martyn, Fotheringay, as well as Richard and Linda Thompson.  He also produced music by a few acts I had already had in my collection for years:  Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, and REM.  Boyd was also at the heart of London’s underground music scene, having opened the first psychedelic nightclub, the UFO, where Pink Floyd (then known as The Pink Floyd) staged their earliest light show extravaganzas.

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We’ll hear more from the Incredible String Band later in the year.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hangman%27s_Beautiful_Daughter

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Boyd

-Stephen