Buddha and Jesus sing God, and other stories

The songs I loved most, that set me off to singing and playing, tended to be found on Island Records in the early 70s. Central to that were the Witchseason productions of Joe Boyd.  This week at the Barbican in London, Joe Boyd set up celebrations of three of his proteges: Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. My friends Adrian and Deena had a small part in the arrangements and invited me down. I didn’t get to the Drake one, but arrived on Friday to Dr Strangely Strange’s warmup gig in the Plough in Walthamstow.  The Strangelies were Irish contemporaries and friends of the ISB, more lighthearted, less exotic but more steeped in the Irish literary and historical stream. And funnier.   In recent years Adrian has brought them back to performing, unearthed lost recordings and got them out on CD. He did similar work with the ISB, but while they’ve always been rather aloof and political, the Strangelies have been friendly and enthusiastic. This was the first time I’d met them and it was a joy. They’re 60 going on 20. The performance was better rehearsed and more confident than any of their previous ones. They were nervous about going from the tiny Plough to the expanse of the Barbican but as excited as teenagers.

On Saturday Adrian managed to wangle me a ticket for Fairport Convention. I’d listened a bit to them in the day, but was never a diehard fan. However the two albums I’d liked best were Full House and Liege And Lief, and the performance centred on them. They had a series of female singers covering Sandy Denny’s parts, notably Kami Thompson (daughter of Richard, and brother of Teddy, who was also singing), and a strikingly powerful and engaging singer called Chris While, whom I’d never heard. Dave Swarbrick and Danny Thompson had pulled out for various reasons, but the Fairports – still a working band – augmented by luminaries such as Ian Matthews and the mighty Richard Thompson, alternating between blinding acoustic and searing electric, pulled off a flawless set.

I didn’t have high expectations of the Incredible String Band night. Partly it was that my fanatical devotion had kind of exhausted itself, especially after the years of the fanzine and ill-fated reunions, and partly because I knew they couldn’t pull off a set like Fairport’s, even with Thompson to help them out. But it was exciting to join Adrian at the backstage catering for lunch with the Strangelies and Joe Boyd (Robyn Hitchcock leaving just as we arrived). I saw the set list for which Joe Boyd was steering them through rehearsals with, according to the Strangelies, a rod of iron. My hopes grew. But it was billed not as a performance by the Incredible String Band (which it couldn’t be without Robin Williamson, who dissociates himself from ISB nostalgia) but as a tribute to them.  After fine sets by the Strangelies and Georgia Seddon (Mike Heron’s daughter) the first song saw the stage full – Mike Heron and Clive Palmer, Robyn Hitchcock, the musical director, Alasdair Roberts, a Scottish folk singer and songwriter, Richard Thompson (seated quietly at the back), Abigail Washburn, an American bluegrass singer and banjoist, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti (a neighbour of Adrian who happened to mention he liked the ISB and found himself on the roster), violinist Alistair Caplin, string bassist Bernie O’Neill, the four Strangelies and a fine five-piece called Trembling Bells. They performed When The Music Starts to Play then everyone left the stage but Thompson, Hitchcock and O’Neill for a driving Back in the 1960s. I won’t go through the whole set, but the actual ISB members only did cameos and the others did heartfelt, unique and stirring versions of, in many cases, little-known ISB songs that revived my love for them. I’ve always thought, rather uneasily given my fandom, that the thing that stopped the ISB songs being more widely loved was often the ISB themselves with their unique delivery and arrangements. I’ve heard and done many ISB cover versions over the years of the fanzine but nothing has come close to Alasdair Roberts’s versions of My Name is Death and Maya, Hitchock and Washburn’s Swift As the Wind and the ensemble’s pounding version of Feast of Stephen, my favourite Mike Heron song and probably the band he’s been waiting his whole life to sing it with (which he did well).  I had to leave before the end to get the sleeper home, despite Adrian saying he’d get me into the backstage party (which ended up in a hotel bar after 3, with only Joe of the Strangelies and Abigail Washburn left. )  I had to keep rationalising it to myself – rearranging my transport would cost me nearly £70. Would I pay £70 to get into a party and tell Richard Thompson how brilliant he is or stare at his daughter? Not really. This was my thinking as the train pulled away from Euston. A great weekend.

(The title – that came from a mad fanatic on the ISB Yahoo Group, describing Richard Thompson and Robyn Hitchcock singing Robin Williamson!)

One more moment to relate – Tim Goulding of the Strangelies was ordered by Joe Boyd to play a whistle solo on Clive Palmer’s Empty Pocket Blues. All day he said he was crapping himself about it. During lunch Adrian mentioned Clive was sitting outside doing nothing and Tim leapt off to ask him to run through it again. As Adrian and I left, we could hear Empty Pocket Blues coming from the toilet! When it came to the moment on stage, Tim stepped forward and produced a wonderful, controlled solo, the best I’ve ever heard on that song.

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