Upstate Folk Festival"
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
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
"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
"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...."
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
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