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"A Little Upstate Folk Festival"

Woodstock and the Incredible String Band

Ever thought you were the dust of stars? Or perhaps you perceived yourself the colour of gold. Or maybe you've experienced a strong desire to "get back to the garden". If so, you're part of the Woodstock generation. The Incredible String Band however were more than that, they were the only Scottish group to play the festival. Andy Roberts of Be Glad roots about a bit.......

By the time I got to Woodstock... well, it was twenty years too late for a start and the nearest I ever did get was interviewing Rose Simpson of the ISB Woodstock line-up in the study of her Welsh home on the 25th anniversary of the event. But more of that at a later time.

In retrospect Woodstock has become everything the idea (rather than the reality) of the 60s counter-culture stood for, and consequently is frequently derided and ridiculed, now even by its originators by the vacuous recent attempts to re-create it which have been visible.

You had to be there I suppose. "Yeah, yeah", you might say, "so what", before flipping on another Maximum Throb Japanese import, "what's all that got to do with anything in these parlous times." Not much really but the fact remains that the event happened, is now a touchstone for some and a benchmark for others when it comes to the archaeology of rock festivals. And of course the Incredible String Band played there. So, what do we know? Well, various bits from various sources....

If Barefoot in Babylon by Robert Spitz is to be believed, on May 28th 1969 Michael Lang, the producer of the festival, phoned Artie Kornfield, the guy dealing with Publicity and Subsidiary Rights to tell him that he had obtained the services of the String Band for the sum of $4,500. No small amount and in fact the same sum that they paid for Ravi Shankar. Artie was apparently impressed by the acquisition of both and commented in the argot of those far off days, "Far out! They'll be dynamite to open the evening's shows, soft, moody." Little did he know what was to actually happen! Described to the String Band as a "little upstate folk festival", they had no idea what to expect as they flew in. Robin: "It was a military helicopter with only one side. As we flew over the site, all you could see was millions of dots, spreading right up to the heavens. I realised then it was the biggest thing I had been at."

Heron's memory of the Woodstock gig was, "that was through people who knew Joe (Boyd), we'd done this show in New York the night before and the organisers were keen to have us on. A helicopter took us to the site and I recall all these people looking like ants trapped in a sea of mud. I don't know what we were doing then but we played and left again. I think the girls were with us than." They certainly were there Mike!

The String Band flew into Woodstock from New York's White Lake heliport (where, incidentally, as we mentioned in Be Glad issue two, Robin met the Dead's Tom Constanten, leading to him later doing the arrangements on Queen of Love from the U album.), together with Ravi Shankar and John Sebastian (who happened to be on the chopper because he was very close to Licorice at the time). Originally due to appear late on the Friday evening as their performance time drew close they were confronted with every festival performer and organiser's worst nightmare- torrential rain, and understandably promptly refuse to go on due to the lack of overhead cover and threat of electrocution. Joe Boyd re-arranged the set for the following afternoon and meanwhile they were replaced by Melanie. The effect and imagined consequences of this rearranging seems to have grown out of all proportion over the years and is the most written about aspect of the String Band at Woodstock, so we'll round up the various bits and pieces here.

Mark Ellen, writing in Q magazine (June '93), notes that despite the ISB having canceled due to the rain the helicopters had now stopped flying (cock-up on the cash front) and the String Band, not being able to hotel it for the night, spent a gloomy nocturnal sojourn, "damp and muddy, packed like sardines, intensely uncomfortable and wearing our stage gear", be-tented together with John Sebastian, Joe Boyd and Melanie. A no sleep blues situation ensued and the percussion drums got somewhat moistened.

Joe Boyd's view of these events is now tempered by the passage of time bit still tinged with a hint of "what ifs". This is from Adrian Whittaker's interview with him.

"We were booked to go on on Friday night. We had a perfect slot - we were after Joan Baez, 10.30 in the evening - but they didn't have a proper stage roof, just very flimsy tarpaulin, which was the most elementary cover you can imagine - and it started to rain. At that time the ISB had started very actively with amps, so they had a pick-up on the sitar, pick up on the gimbri etc. and the electric bass. Of course you couldn't play in the rain with all these electric instruments - so we were struck. I said " just go on with your acoustic instruments and play" and they said "we can't, wait 'til it's stopped raining"....

"What happened then was I said, "you don't know what's going to happen - you may never get on stage" but they wanted to wait for the rain to stop and so someone else went on - Melanie - who triumphed in that slot and wrote "Candles in the Rain" about that exact moment! We talked to John Morris (one of the organisers), who was a friend of mine about the logistics of where we could pick up on the following day...and it sort of haunted me, that moment, because I should've pushed - just dragged them bodily to the stage and said "forget the amps, just play acoustically". It might have been wonderful, it might have been a great triumph - we might have been in the film and on the record, the whole thing! We ended up going on the following afternoon after Canned Heat in the baking sun. People were ready for something heavy and loud and they came on and just - died!"

Mmmmm it might equally have been terrible. Sounds like Joe is being a bit "wise after the event" on his involvement with the String Band at Woodstock. How it happened was how it happened and that was the ISB's contribution to Woodstock. But there was obviously tension about the event and perhaps confusion about what Boyd's role was and what power he could exercise over the band.

Rose Simpson, long out of the music business, has a focused vision of what should have taken place and of Boyd's role:

".....he should have just said "get on that blessed stage and you play, shut up moaning about getting wet and get up there", and we should have done it, we were silly not to, he regrets it I know. The String Band would have had a different history if we had. One of our big mistakes really. I can see why we did it. We were a bit miffed really, it was just unpleasant, it wasn't very nice being in the wet and cold, hungry and not knowing how the hell we were going to go anywhere next."

And Boyd again, finally on this matter:

"It was Joe Boyd's Greatest Mistake. If I could do it all over again I would put them on in the rain. They would have triumphed like Melanie. They would have been in the movie, and everyone who was in the movie had a huge break. Who know what would have happened...."

Who knows?

Their moment of glory at Woodstock finally came, rather dissonantly, after Canned Heat and before Credence Clearwater Revival on the Saturday night when the crowd were high, hot and rocking. Not a good place to be and as a result they were apparently the only band at the festival not to be called back for an encore.

Heron: "It was incredibly high, right up on this scaffolding, and three out of four of us had vertigo. Little flimsy dresses on the girls, acoustic guitars out of tune, the drums still damp, up this bloody tower, like playing off the Forth Bridge to these seas of people cooking beans in the mud. Oh it was impossible. We were terrible."

Heron again: "It was terrible for us. We had to go up this very, very high scaffolding in the wind.... and it was just...I mean Woodstock was all these people living in mud. We got helicoptered out, we had a gig that night at the Carnegie Hall, so we didn't have to stay there. Canned Heat was the best for me, kind of latrine digging music, totally brilliant, really brilliant, you could thrust the spade in time with the music! But some of the stuff seemed not really suitable. Certainly not us, we were terrible for it."

Williamson: "Our performance at Woodstock was not great. But we did enjoy being there."

Although the String Band later became a brilliant festival band in the UK, Woodstock was perhaps too big and too impersonal and very probably "too British" in both content and execution.

As with most things you need they surface eventually and as part of the 25th Woodstock celebrations the ISB footage turned up and some has been used in the new film of the event. Not all their performance was filmed apparently due to the high price of film stock, but it all exists on audio somewhere. The song used in the film is When you find out who you are, from I Looked Up. Additionally the BBC ran a three part Woodstock series in late July which also include the ISB.

On the BBC series we saw the ISB arriving by helicopter, and leaping out one by one, clutching their instruments and in Mike's case a briefcase (!) - a chance here to admire Likky's fine physique! (sorry girls).

The ISB performance we have seen of When you find out who you are appears to be not too bad a performance as either Mike or Robin's memories suggest, considering the problems which surrounded it. The musicianship is fine, Robin's vocals are strong and clear and Likky adds excellent backing vocals while Rose grins and plucks bass and Mike delivers trademark piano (have you ever thought how much early Heron looks like that Marty Pellow chap from Wet! Wet! Wet! - just a thought!). Sartorially, Rose has some sort of diaphanous garb draped about her person., Mike sticks to a simple T shirt and trouser arrangement, Robin in seriously striped trousers and attempted mustache looks very 1969 and Likky deports herself wonderfully in dress and ring of flowers head accessory.

The final viewpoint here, from Robin, takes a step back from performance aspect and concentrates on his views on the festival as a whole - views which were shared by many who attended the festival.

"I thought it was the beginning of a new era, and I think that people at that time thought everything would change at that point, that money would break down, that we'd go back to a barter economy, that the world was forever going back to a more idyllic state. Everyone was very optimistic about it, and it was very disheartening to find that this did not occur. A lot of people got cynical and then you had the cynical and self-seeking 70s."

And that, really, is the true spirit of Woodstock. Ah well, look's like the sun's coming out. Time to get back to the garden I guess........

Previously printed by beGlad Winter 1994

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