Witches' Hats & Painted Chariots: The Incredible String Band and The 5,000 Layers Of Psychedelic Folk Music

This glossy 108-page A4 publication comes courtesy of the good guys at the excellent Shindig magazine, and is one of their series of specials outwith the normal run of the magazine itself. Its stated aim is to pay a dedicated tribute to the ISB and in doing so examine the subsequent rise of what has become known as Acid Folk: an ambitious enough aim for even the most knowledgeable and informed, whether commentator or fan. It's a very brave attempt: also a kind of labour-of-love one might say, clearly both intensely well-meaning and undertaken with the best of intentions by folks who actually care about and seriously appreciate the music. It looks incredibly attractive, with appealing and eye-catching design entirely befitting the subject matter and era, lavish use of colour and texture and some marvellous, and wholly relevant, photographic and ephemeral material extremely well reproduced. And its central premises and thesis are credibly introduced and contextualised. There's no attempt to disguise the fact that, even by the candid admission of many, including band members themselves, the ISB were flawed, inconsistent and often musically less than secure; but their esoteric charms and often unconsciously pioneering outlook and practices were both informed by and informing of their time, and have both then and since had a far-reaching effect on musical developments and experiments both within and outside the world of folk music. Sure, there will be those who say that the ISB were not the only ones doing this or that, that they were not entirely original, and so forth, but then again, they would never harbour pretensions to being all-knowing gurus. Whatever, more and more folks are coming out of the closet and admitting that the ISB's music has been a formative influence or key experience - even, and often with hindsight, a sneakily subliminal one; for some of us, it has never gone away or gone out of fashion!

The basic format of the book comprises two specific strands, which more or less alternate over the course of its 100-or-so pages. The first of these, logically enough, concerns the ISB themselves, and is effectively subdivided into three categories of essay. One category is a chronological series of articles on the individual ISB albums (that means all of the official ISB LP releases, but ignoring subsequent compilations or other crucial releases like archive collections such as The Chelsea Sessions) and two of Robin Williamson's solo albums. Although many of the commentaries are spot-on, and most contain reliable, rightly perceptive nuggets and generally sensible overviews, the inevitable drawback with this strand is that eight different authors are involved, so there's little consistency either in terms of perspective or the amount of inner detail given, and some albums are thus bound to achieve a better quality of coverage than others (OK, some are vastly more important too in the scheme of things, and I'd be the first to concede that). The second, and related, category is a loosely connected set of essays taking the form of personal reminiscences, reflections on the effect of the ISB on those people closely involved - Robin and Mike themselves on different periods of the band's activities, Clive on the (very) early years, Jeanette Howlett on the high-profile 2009 concert celebrating the band's music, and a fan's experience of discovering the band's music. The third category presents separate reappraisals of Robin's post-ISB solo career, and two of Mike's solo albums.

The book's second strand, indexed as "Friends", presents a number of self-contained essays that purport to explore connections (musical and/or cultural) between the ISB and other bands or trends or sub-genres. The coverage is necessarily selective (as one would expect in the limited space available), and not all of the ten bands discussed here in depth might be regarded by admirers of Acid Folk as essential to our understanding of the cause; diehard fans will doubtless find legitimate reasons for substitutions within, or extensions of, the roll-call. Me, I think the book's compilers have done a pretty good job with the perhaps too all-embracing task they'd set themselves, but hey, one can't please everybody and so there's no mileage to be gained for criticising what the book is not - if you get my drift. One or two of the individual essays (like that on Dando Shaft) merely reproduce (or cut-and-paste) a liner note or other already-published essay, whereas others have been specially commissioned and provide clear reference points that conjoin with or illuminate the main thesis. The pieces on Dr. Strangely Strange, Forest, COB and Comus are both very useful and (more often than not) genuinely revealing, whereas one or two of the others don't seem to go quite far enough either in their appraisals or with the connections being made. And of course, it goes with the territory that one's gonna disagree with matters of relative detail or final assessment… Alongside pieces on Mr. Fox, Spirogyra, Anne Briggs, Mark Fry and the band called Heron (no relation!), we find a discourse on Medieval Folk In The '70s which uncover the tip of another iceberg or two and helpfully points out avenues for further exploration) and a full-blown piece arguably tenuously linking the ISB to that seminal movie The Wicker Man (hmm…).

But overall it will come as no surprise that a goodly proportion of the book's potential target audience will be well satisfied with the publication, and doubtless many outwith its intended market will also appreciate a copy. Newcomers to the magical world of the ISB will wonder how they've lived so long without, while they will quickly come to appreciate the sheer myriad of music the band has influenced - and, importantly, been influenced by, often being pleasantly surprised at the quality of invention within. For, as the book's co-compiler Jon "Mojo" Mills posits in the book's foreword, the ISB's was a sound that defined what we now routinely call "acid-folk". That may be only part of the story, but it's just fine as a starting-point. Just as I did when originally discovering each of the albums in turn, I'm sure you'll be eager to check out various other musics, obscure and not-so-obscure musical and literary references and cross-cultural connections - and of course it's all so much easier nowadays, with so much music readily available (just remember how seriously nigh-impossible all this research was way back in the 1960s - and even thru to the '80s!).

Perhaps - or even because of, I dunno - its niche-market status, and this is a curious thing, but in one major respect this book succeeds big-time - namely in providing a readable and attractive "hey, look what's out there and what's been going on - so go grab yourself a listen" taster, one that really makes you want to investigate the music without having to sift through a whole load of hype and bull****. You feel that generally you can trust most of the judgments laid down here, that the pronouncements and conclusions are at worst reasonably authoritative. Even though the quality of the writing is distinctly uneven, and some of the features within contain a lot less detail than desirable even acknowledging their "taster" role. Even though there's a lamentable lack of crediting of far too many of the photos in the book, and some unnecessary duplication of images (the album cover of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter appears twice, for example). Even though the editing is a touch slipshod at times, and there are several howlers, careless typos (e.g. Harp Rope!) and continuity glitches (and a few factual errors - e.g. there aren't any sitars playing on A Very Cellular Song!) that really should've been spotted and just haven't been dealt with. Even though for the confirmed or longtime ISB fan there's little new in the way of information or insight within any of the individual album commentaries (and the quality of criticism and perception varies oh so wildly at times, with some titles like Changing Horses and U getting unkindly short-shrift treatment - and how can any review of the incomparable Wee Tam & The Big Huge omit even mention of Air and The Circle Is Unbroken??). And finally, it would've been good to expend a few pages on a decent discography properly denoting the currently available CD editions of the ISB and other key Acid-Folk albums (the appended "guide to 20 essential acid-folk releases" is in several cases frustratingly inaccurate in terms of detail of current availability and uptodate editions of these albums).

So, while the recent ISB convert will in all probability swiftly desire something meatier and more academic/scholarly (in which case investment in Helter Skelter Publishing's excellent Be Glad ISB Compendium is essential, topped up with Jeanette Leech's Seasons They Change and Will Hodgkinson's Electric Eden: a combination of reading to be highly recommended, and at least the first-mentioned of those three titles should be purchased with alacrity), Witches' Hats…is still, despite its shortcomings, a most cherishable publication, one for which I'd not hesitate to provide the necessary modest modicum of slim-A4-height space on my crowded bookshelves.

David Kidman

Publisher: Shindig Magazine

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