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Empty Pocket Blues - The Life and Music of Clive Palmer

By Grahame Hood

224 pages

Clive Palmer, a beatnik banjo player who began playing skiffle, jazz and folk in 1950s London, honed his skills by busking in Paris and then moved to Scotland (influencing the young Billy Connolly, among many others) to co-found the legendary Incredible String Band. Leaving them after their first album in 1966 to hitchhike to Afghanistan, he had many adventures and the occasional brush with the law. In the early Seventies he was part of the thriving Cornish folk scene, where he arguably produced his best work, including two albums with Clive’s Original Band (C.O.B.) which have influenced a whole new generation of musicians. Clive is still playing and releasing albums to this day, a bona-fide musical treasure. The book contains much new information on the early days of the Incredible String Band and Clive’s years in Cornwall.

  • ‘The Willie Dixon of British folk music’-  Devendra Banhart

  • ‘Very enjoyable. I like the tales of Clive’s trip to Afghanistan and India.’ -  Joe Boyd.

  • ‘Clive is unquestionably the best banjo player I ever heard. He was, and still is, my banjo hero.’ -  Billy Connolly

  • ‘The re-incarnation of Edwardian banjo.’ - Robin Williamson

Making Time Review

This is a fascinating book for anyone who is less aware of what Clive did between the first String Band album and the band reforming in 2000. What is unusual is that Clive never seems to seek the limelight. He loves making music and being a commercial success is not something he seeks, indeed it may more more of a hindrance in his desire to enjoy making music and push the boundaries of sound. Although he hails from London, Clive has travelled extensively including busking with Wizz Jones in Paris. He made his name as a musician as part of the Edinburgh and Glasgow folk scenes where he met with Robin Williamson and the likes of Billy Connolly and Bert Jansch. Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Saucihull Street developed out of this. The Incredible String Band was formed when Mike Heron joined in.

By the time the first Joe Boyd-produced album was released the band had broken up to go travelling in their separate directions. Mike and Robin got back together as the ISB but, despite the band's success, Clive did his own thing, mostly playing folk music around Cornwall. He formed a number of bands including the Stockroom Five, a four-piece band obviously. He had developed an excellent reputation for his banjo playing and he would bring in different musical styles but old-time music hall appears to have been one of his favourites. His next "success" was Clive's Original Band (COB) which released some excellent albums including Spirit of Love. However, just as the band was being recognised Clive left to try new things.

Clive was not a full-time musician, i.e. unemployed, all the time. He had worked in factories including learning how to make musical instruments. He started to make instruments for others and seems to have specialised in pipes, local versions of bagpipes. These included Cornish pipes and Northumbrian pipes. He has been playing the latter on stage in recent years. These and the guitar have shown that he is more than just a banjo player.

Roll on the 1990s and there is a mini String Band revival, largely thanks to the launch of Andy Roberts' beGlad fanzine. Suddenly people were asking about Clive again. A gig in London brought Clive back from his Cornish home to a small but appreciative audience. A couple of years later and he was touring with Robin again. At the end of this tour Mike joined and the three ISB members were playing together again. Yes it was absolutely freezing in the Edinburgh venue which made it almost impossible to concentrate on the music and enjoy the evening. Still, the reunion of the String Band came out of this. Many thought it wrong to interfere with the memories but, for others, it was a chance to hear the songs performed by those who wrote them and as the ISB. A highlight of the reformed ISB, with and without Robin Williamson, was Clive's rendition of Mike Heron's Air. The circle was not unbroken but rejoined.

Grahame has written an excellent account of Clive's career. Most reading this will know about the Incredible String Band and the reformed Incredible String Band. However, much of the book discusses the year in-between, a period which will be less well-known to most and, consequently, more interesting. This was a lower profile time so the depth of information included shows what a superb piece of research this was. Recommended reading for String Band fans and more.

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