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Woodstock Performers: Quill

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

Dan Cole of Quill trying to engage the audience with some percussion instruments.

Dan Cole of Quill trying to engage the audience with some percussion instruments.

Quill at Woodstock

The Woodstock festival was August 15-18th, 1969. The last artist to appear on Day 1 of the festival was Joan Baez, who actually didn't wrap up her set until 2:00 a.m. on Saturday the 16th. Due to delays getting things going on Day 2, Country Joe McDonald ended up filling in after Quill's set.

Day 2 of the Woodstock festival officially got off to a start just after noon on Saturday, August 16th, with a four-song set by Boston's Quill. Unfortunately for Quill, their music didn't resonate with the crowd, and a technical glitch meant that the audio and video elements of their set were not recorded in sync.

A Band Called Quill

Brothers Jon and Dan Cole, both musically-inclined from the time they were kids, attended prep school together, where they were the stars of the school band. Jon made a trip abroad to study in Germany during his junior year, where his love of American roots music made him a hit with his fellow students. Returning to the US, Jon enrolled at the Boston Museum School. Dan was studying at Bard College, but soon dropped out to study acting. Realizing that they both really wanted to play music more than anything, in 1966, the brothers started performing their own music in clubs around Boston.

In 1967, the Coles caught the attention of Ray Paret, who managed a popular local band and was a big promoter of Boston's unique sound, the so called “Bosstown Sound.’’ Paret introduced the Coles to Phil Thayer (keyboards, sax and flute) and Roger North (drums), who had both previously been with a band called Catharsis, and Norm Rogers (guitar), who had been with Morning Star Blues Band. With Jon on bass and Dan handling vocals, Quill was born.

Promoted by Paret and his partner, the band started playing area clubs and were soon making a respectable living playing music. The band's style was a mixture of rock and psychedelic jazz, and they experimented with rhythm instruments and drum beats atop complex song structures. They never set out to create psychedelic music, but their lyrics did lean toward social commentary, often tongue-in-cheek, and their more complex arrangements were reminiscent of bands like Procol Harum. As they gained in popularity, they were being booked to open for big names like The Who, Velvet Underground and Janis Joplin when those artists played anywhere near the Boston area.

In the summer of 1969, Paret had booked Quill to play a club called The Scene in New York City. As it happened, Johnny Winter was making his New York debut in front of some record company execs at The Scene that same night. At the end of the night, Quill ended up onstage as well, jamming with Johnny, Jimi Hendrix and Stephen Stills, all who were booked to play Woodstock. According to music lore, this encounter led to Quill being signed to appear at the Woodstock festival.

Quill's Woodstock Set

Quill had already been in the area of the festival site for weeks. When Michael Lang had signed Quill to perform at Woodstock, the band had agreed to act as emissaries for the festival, and perform a series of goodwill concerts, including one at a prison, one at a home for juvenile delinquents, and another at a mental institution.

The bill on the opening day at Woodstock (Friday August 15, 1969) was all folk and acoustic music, but Saturday was to mark the beginning of the rock acts. Shortly after noon, John Morris, the Woodstock stage manager, announced “Let’s have some music. Ladies and gentlemen, Quill!” Quill started a four-song, 45-minute set that included their Procol Harum-style tune “They Live the Life.’’ Whether it was intentional or not, the song was played down-tempo, and the audience remained subdued. Or, perhaps they were still asleep.

Through the rest of their set, the band struggled to make the kind of energetic connection with the crowd that they were known for. A big part of their club routine was to hand out percussion instruments to audience members, actively engaging them in contributing to the sound. This may have worked well for the band in smaller venues, but it was a flop at Woodstock, with folks appearing unsure what to do with these pieces of wood that had just landed in their laps. The video clip below shows Quill handing out whatever they could lay their hands on by the time their set was wrapping up, including what appears to be an old beat up metal oil drum. The guys left the stage somewhat frustrated that they just couldn't get the crowd to engage with them they way they did in clubs.

Quill at Woodstock

It was pretty awe-inspiring to get up on that Saturday morning, with the leaves still dripping from the torrential rain,’’ remembers Dan Cole, one of two Massachusetts brothers who co-founded the band. “Two or three hours later, we were helicoptering [to the fairgrounds] with cows below. We come over the hill, and there’s half a million people.’

— Dan Cole from an interview published in The Boston Globe, August 9, 2009

Life After Woodstock

Ahmet Ertegün of Atlantic Records had signed Quill to a record deal for the Cotillion label in the summer of 1969, hoping that the buzz from Woodstock and their "goodwill tour" would translate into record sales. In an effort to maintain control of the overall sound of the record, the band insisted that they had to record the tracks in their home studio. Jon would later get involved in producing other artists, and he wanted to be the producer of Quill's first venture.

By the time the record was ready for release, word had arrived that the band wouldn't be in the Woodstock film. Ertegun was furious, and coupled with the uneven production on the tracks the band had laid down, their one and only LP wasn't even promoted by Atlantic. Album sales went nowhere.

Jon Cole quit the band a few months after the release of their album in order to pursue production projects, and years later, gave up on music completely. The remaining members pulled together enough material to record a second LP, which Atlantic didn't even bother to release. Quill quietly disbanded in early 1970.

By the late 1970s, Dan Cole was running Boston's first 16-track recording studio and also had his own production company. Through his old friend from Woodstock, Michael Lang, Cole helped put together a backing band for a Joe Cocker tour and later went on to work as an executive with Sony's Professional Products Group. Former drummer Roger North, a classically trained musician who gained a name for himself as a superb technical drummer, went on to develop his own line of North drums.

Five Musical Facts About Quill

  1. Quill does not appear in the 1970 Woodstock film due to a technical recording problem, but one of their songs is included in D.A. Pennebaker's 1994 Woodstock Diary, a must for anyone who loves Woodstock. The audio and film glitch that prevented Quill from being included in the original Woodstock film was fixed in time for the next band on the roster.
  2. Quill were one of only three acts at Woodstock who had not yet released an LP.
  3. After the band’s set at Woodstock, Dan hung around the site for the remainder of the day, drinking champagne with Grace Slick, and chatting with the members of Santana.
  4. The members of Quill were all very talented musicians, and they often traded instruments onstage and introduced instruments like the cello or trombone. Songs were rarely played exactly the same twice.
  5. Years after Woodstock, Dan Cole was invited to audition to join Sha Na Na, the "revival" group who appeared on Day 3 of the festival.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 01, 2019:

Hi Flourish,

From everything I have read, their insistence on having control over their first album was a big part of their undoing...they just didn't have the experience to produce records, albeit they were talented musicians. So much seems to go into someone making it "big," and talent is just a part of that.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 01, 2019:

If you can’t engage the audience you’re history. It’s too bad they gave up on music altogether if they were that talented but it does take a lot of perseverance.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 01, 2019:

Hi Pamela and thank you.

Yes, poor Quill didn't get the boost from Woodstock that so many did, and most folks don't even recall their name. They were all super-talented, but that isn't always enough, it seems.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 01, 2019:

I don't remember much about Quill from that era. Of course, they did not have the following that Grace Slick or Santana had. I enjoy reading about various groups that played at Woodstock, and this is another good article.