EIF Music review: Music of the Incredible String Band: Very Cellular Songs

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Music of the Incredible String Band: Very Cellular Songs | Playhouse | Star rating: ***

“Way back in the Nineteen Sixteees,” as Alastair Roberts, Green Gartside and Robyn Hitchcock reminded us in one of their heroes’ songs, the Incredible String Band created music of elegant lyricism, childlike mischief and ineffable weirdness.

Mike Herron carries the baton for the Incredible String Band. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Mike Herron carries the baton for the Incredible String Band. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Of the core trio, Clive Palmer is dead and Robin Williamson otherwise occupied, so it remained for Mike Heron to provide a widely beaming, gnomish presence amid the 17-odd musicians paying tribute. They ranged from contemporaries such as Barbara Dickson, with a soulful Empty Pocket Blues, and linchpin bassist Danny Thompson, to sometimes surprising inheritors of the Incredible legacy, soprano Janis Kelly giving warm voice to the hymn-like Greatest Friend, while Sam Lee brought things back to traditional roots with his strikingly unaccompanied Circle Is Unbroken.

Accompanists comprised guitarists Justin Adams and Neil MacColl, Fraser Fifield on whistle and harpsichordist David McGuinness, while Greg Lawson’s violin infused the wheedling, eastern character of many ISB songs.

Roberts gave a suitably sepulchral account of My Name Is Death and was joined by Karine Polwart and Withered Hand for the joyful Log Cabin in the Sky, although Polwart’s October Song didn’t sit too comfortably with its accompaniment. Gartside (formerly of Eighties rockers Scritti Politti), preserved the wry yearning of First Girl, while Hitchcock’s Chinese White, in all its haunting strangeness, just about escaped querulous pastiche. Heron, whose daughter, Georgia Seddon, played percussion and keyboards, came over too faintly during Painting Box but gave a more convincing account of the epic Maya. It was a sometimes ragged evening, but the affection was palpable, not least from ISB producer Joe Boyd, who recalled their first Edinburgh encounter. As Heron and company despatched us into the night with the pantheistic benediction of A Very Cellular Song, complete with buzzing kazoos and singing amoebas, we were not entirely convinced, but strangely happy.