Woodstock Performers: The Incredible String Band
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 2, before The Incredible String Band (ISB), was another band that hailed from the UK, the Keef Hartley Band. Following ISB, the rock program that was to be Day 2 would get back on track with Canned Heat.
The Incredible String Band had existed in one form or another since 1963, and they had already released four relatively successful albums by the time of their appearance at Woodstock. The problem was they ended up performing on the wrong day. They were originally slated to appear on Day 1, which featured the folk and acoustic acts. They had refused to play in the rain on Friday, so it was their misfortune to be scheduled to appear on Saturday, sandwiched between Keef Hartley and Canned Heat.
The Incredible String Band
Originally formed as a duo in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1965, Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer added rhythm guitarist Mike Heron to their lineup in the fall of that year, and The Incredible String Band was born. Palmer had cut his teeth busking on the streets of Paris and Williamson was part of the local beatnik scene. Heron, on the other hand, was still living with his parents, who wanted him to become a chartered accountant.
"ISB," as their fans came to know them, had first caught the attention of a record scout in 1965. Joe Boyd had relocated from the US to establish a UK office for Elektra Records, and in 1966 he signed them to a record deal. At the time, they were the house band in an all-night folk club on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, where they had developed quite a following for their innovative musical compositions. With a small advance in their pockets to cover travel costs, the trio headed to London, where they recorded their first album "The Incredible String Band," at the Sound Techniques studio in May 1966. It actually won "Folk Album of the Year" in Melody Maker's annual poll, an unheard of achievement for a debut album. The band broke up soon after when Palmer quit, and after a brief hiatus, Williamson and Heron reformed the group as a duo once again.
In November of 1966, the duo began a tour of the United Kingdom, opening for folkies like Judy Collins and Tom Paxton. Originally a fairly standard folk outfit, they began experimenting with and incorporating new instruments into their compositions, including sitar and Middle eastern percussion and string instruments. By 1967, they were performing regularly in London folk clubs, and Boyd, who was eager to promote this very talented duo, booked them to appear at 1967's Newport Folk festival. They appeared on the closing day of the festival, sharing the stage with folk luminaries like Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. That same month, they released their sophomore effort, "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion," which featured Danny Thompson of the band Pentangle on double bass and Williamson's girlfriend Licorice McKechnie on vocals. That album quickly hit the number 25 spot on the UK charts, and gained an underground following in the US.
The year 1968 was a big one for the band, with the release of two albums and a return trip to the US. "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter " was released in March and quickly rose to the number five spot on UK album charts and made the #161 position on the US Billboard LP chart. It was ISB's first album to feature multi-track recording and significant overdubbing of vocals and instrumental tracks. They soon embarked on another UK tour in support of the album, appearing in such large and storied venues as London's Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. They also paid another visit to the US, where they appeared at both the Fillmore East and Fillmore West.
In November 1968, they released "Wee Tam and the Big Huge" as a double-LP in the UK, with Heron's girlfriend Rose Simpson joining the lineup, where she played violin and percussion and helped out on vocals. ISB just didn't have the following in the US that it had always enjoyed in the UK, so Elektra in the US decided to release the double-LP as two individual records. With its heavy use of eastern instruments and its underlying message promoting harmony, splitting the double album into two single albums negatively impacted the overall concept and hurt US sales.
You that create the diversity of the forms
open to my words
you that divide and multiply it
hear my sounds
I make yield league to you
and fellow wanderers— The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band Performing "The Letter" at Woodstock
The Incredible String Band's Woodstock
When the time came for ISB to take the stage at Woodstock, the crowd was ready for a night of hard rock, not psychedelic folk.
The band began their 6:00 p.m. set with "Invocation;" a finer piece of spoken-word hippie prose has probably never existed. They followed this up with five songs, none of which came from any of the albums they had released to-date. So, even folks who had heard ISB on vinyl or during one of their previous US tours were unfamiliar with the songs in the 30-minute set. ISB's albums, which often contained lush overdubbing and numerous instruments, fell flat onstage, as there were only four band members to fill in all of the musical bits.
Reaction from the crowd was politely restrained, to say the least. If they had played on Friday night, they would undoubtedly have received a much warmer response, and likely would also have been included in the 1970 Woodstock film.
"Everyone had been dropping assorted drugs. They wanted things like Canned Heat. They didn't want plinky, British, thoughtful music. It was too floaty. It wasn't really what was required."— Mike Heron, BBC interview April 2017
Life After Woodstock
Things just seemed to go downhill for ISB after Woodstock. The group had been living on a commune in Wales and by late 1969 they had relocated to Scotland. Both couples in the band had broken up, and tensions between Williamson and Heron were increasing. The two had never really been close; they had always had sort of a tit-for-tat relationship, and even their songwriting had never been a collaborative effort. In November of 1969, they released their fourth album "Changing Horses," which did respectably well in the UK but was viewed by the band as being a failure in the important US market.
Three more albums followed for Elektra, and when their long-time manager Joe Boyd returned home to the US, the group signed on with Island Records. Five albums followed on Island, and only the second of that bunch, 1971's "Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air," even appeared on the UK or US charts. The album marked a real departure for the band as well, in that it was almost all electric as opposed to acoustic. But it was also the one that made more money than any of the others.
Creative differences between Williamson and Heron, and the departure of Licorice and Rose in 1972, were just the beginning. The band saw a revolving door of members and Williamson and Heron finally broke up the band in 1974 so they could pursue solo careers. They got back together again in 1997, this time as a trio with their old mate Clive Palmer, until disbanding again in 2003. There have been a few concert appearances since then, but none have featured Williamson and Heron together.
Five Musical Facts
- Their refusal to play in the rain the previous day resulted in ISB not being featured in the 1970 Woodstock film. The crazy thing was, they were even at the site on the Friday night, having shared a helicopter ride there with Ravi Shankar. If it was electric shock due to the rain that they were worried about, they could easily have done an acoustic set.
- The "Woodstock Diaries" contains one-minute of their song "When You Find Out Who You Are." The most you will find from ISB's set is on , an excellent box set that has at least one song from almost every artist in their order of appearance. "The Letter" and "When You Find Out Who You Are" are both here, though "The Letter" has been heavily edited. Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm
- Their second album "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion," which came out in 1967, was cited much later by David Bowie as one of the best albums ever.
- Beatle Paul McCartney gave 5000 Spirits the title of “my favorite album of 1967.”
- In 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams—who had previously chosen "The Hedgehog's Song" when he appeared on Desert Island Discs—wrote the foreword for a full-length book about the band, describing them as "holy."
© 2019 Kaili Bisson