Scottish psychedelic folk group The Incredible String Band was riding a wave of popular and critical success in 1969. They were scheduled to perform on Friday evening with the other folk acts, but they refused to play in the rain and were rescheduled to play Saturday evening between Keef Hartley Band and Canned Heat. The audience, ready for a night of hard rock, did not exactly warm up to the more traditional, folk sound of The Incredible String Band.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, August 1969–2019
Day Two, Performer 6
The Incredible String Band
Performed Saturday evening, August 16, 6:00–6:40 pm
Mike Heron: multi-instruments • Robin Williamson: vocals, multi-instruments • Christina "Licorice" McKechnie: organ, vocals • Rose Simpson: bass, vocals, multi-instruments
Woodstock set list:
- The Letter
- Gather ’Round
- This Moment
- Come with Me
- When You Find Out Who You Are
ISB, as they were known by their fans, was primarily a vehicle for musicians Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. Formed in 1965 as a trio with Clive Palmer, the group became a duo with Palmer’s departure the following year. The band’s first two albums, The Incredible String Band and The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, were notable for their varied instrumentation and experimentation, and the band started gaining a large following (including Beatle Paul McCartney, who gave 5000 Spirits the title of “my favorite album of 1967”).
By 1968, ISB now included Williamson’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie, and Heron’s girlfriend, Rose Simpson, and their next two albums, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and the double album Wee Tam and the Big Huge, received accolades from their musical peers and fans. ISB toured the United States and the United Kingdom behind these albums, expanding their fan base and critical respect.
The band’s Woodstock appearance did very little to enhance their reputation, however. They performed no music from any of their albums, and their placement on the schedule on a day otherwise set aside for hard rock acts didn’t help, either. Heron’s and Williamson’s performances were at their usual high level, but the vocal harmonies of McKechnie and Simpson were weak. Even Rose’s long, transparent dress that left little to the imagination did little to make their performance memorable. ISB was not included in the Woodstock movie or soundtrack album, so many of their fans and potential fans were unaware that they had even been at Woodstock.
On record, the group’s psychedelic brand of pastoral English folk music was transcendent, multi-layered and mysterious. In a live performance setting, the layers of exotic instrumentation were necessarily stripped away to a basic combination of (mostly) acoustic guitar and piano. Williamson kicked off the proceedings by reciting a poem, “Invocation,” which would be issued in 1970 on the album U. While the audience fell to a respectful hush, this was probably not the best way to grab the audience’s attention, and it was followed with a rendition of Mike Heron’s breezy “The Letter” (to be issued on the 1970 album I Looked Up), the acoustic instrumentation dissolving over the Woodstock throng.
Robin Williamson’s bouncy “Gather Round” (which remains unreleased as of this writing) gave the set a bit of spring in its step, and the tranquil mood was cemented with Heron’s moving “This Moment” (also from I Looked Up) which featured prominent backing vocals from Licorice and Rose. It was back to Williamson for “Come With Me” (released the following year on the Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending album), temporarily giving Yasgur’s Farm the feel of a Renaissance Fair. A Williamson composition also closed out the set, the lengthy “When You Find Out Who You Are” winning over the crowd with its positive message. While not necessarily their finest moment (which could have come if they had played the night before), The Incredible String Band’s performance at Woodstock was at the very least relaxed and enjoyable.
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After Woodstock, ISB experienced frequent personnel changes and creative differences. By 1974, Williamson and Heron could no longer stand to work together and broke up the group to pursue their separate careers. Robin Williamson released over 40 albums of Celtic- and jazz-influenced music after leaving The Incredible String Band, earning a Grammy nomination in 1995. Mike Heron continued to tour regularly with various other musicians around the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1972, both Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie had left the group (and their boyfriends Heron and Williamson), Simpson serving as Lady Mayoress of the Welsh town of Aberystwyth in 1996, while McKechnie disappeared from public life and may have died some time ago. Heron and Williamson reunited as the ISB in 1997, touring as a trio with founding member Clive Palmer until breaking up again in 2003. Both continue to pursue solo careers.
—Wade Lawrence & Scott Parker
Next performer: Canned Heat