Woodstock’s Unsung Acts: 10 Time Forgot
Forty years ago this summer, some of the biggest bands in the world converged on a farm in upstate New York as part of the pioneering Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Headlined by the iconic Jimi Hendrix, supporting acts over the festival's four days (which began on Friday, Aug. 15 and ran over into mid-morning Monday) included superstars Janis Joplin, the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, the Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, among other top talents.
But not everyone who appeared in front of the hundreds of thousands of hippies gathered down at Max Yasgur's farm became household names. Here, Metromix presents the 10 Woodstock acts time forgot.
Folk innovator Richie Havens became a legend when he opened the festival with a blistering set (yes, folk sets can be blistering) immortalized in the 1970 "Woodstock" documentary. But history has been less kind to the L.A. psych-folk group Sweetwater, who were the second act to take the stage. Fronted by 20-year-old Nancy "Nansi" Nevins, the seven-piece outfit ran through nine songs in 45 minutes and, despite their often-esoteric sound, seemed to be an act on the rise in those weird, heady days. Their track to fame would be forever derailed when Nevins suffered serious brain and vocal cord injuries in a car accident only a few months after the festival and could not return to performing for some time. Notably, she still makes music today.
Mounting a quickly darkening stage as Woodstock's first day turned to night, folk singer Sommer did a 10-song set that lasted little more than 30 minutes. He'd already gained some fame for his role as Woof in the original Broadway cast of the hippie musical "Hair," but this set was part of Sommer's then-burgeoning solo career. A number of attendees considered his cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America" among the weekend's highlights, and Sommer wrote a hit song during the festival (actually about the show itself) called "We're All Playing In the Same Band." But neither his musical stage nor solo fortunes matured into greater success. He passed away in 1990.
A Vietnam vet-turned-folk singer, Hardin went on after dark during Woodstock's first night due to the festival's running late-and, reportedly, because he was too zonked on drugs to perform any earlier than he eventually did. Hardin was only a marginally popular performer in his own right, but he had written the hits "If I Were a Carpenter" (made famous by Bobby Darin in 1966, and covered by many '60s folk artists) and "Reason to Believe," which Rod Stewart would popularize a couple of years later. Hardin got off stage as it started to rain, and had an uneven output through the '70s before dying of an overdose in 1980.
After Hardin's quick performance and a rainy set from sitar player/Beatles friend Ravi Shankar came folk singer Melanie Safka, who at that time was known only by her first name. A nervous performer, Melanie did one of the weekend's shortest sets, clocking in at around 20 minutes total. It was dark and raining, but some festivalgoers managed to get candles lit out in the muddy field as she played just before midnight. Melanie would later turn the experience into a hit song called "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and go on to slowly but steadily sell millions of albums over the course of her still-active career.
Folk songstress Joan Baez famously ended Friday night's official festivities with her emotionally charged closing set, and Boston-based rockers Quill unceremoniously opened Saturday's stage show. The quartet, fronted by brothers Dan and Jon Cole, played for about a half hour just after noon but were cut from the weekend's landmark documentary film due to technical problems in the recording equipment (which were, thankfully, resolved immediately after the group's reportedly substandard performance). Not appearing in the movie apparently destroyed the band's future, as their label decided to not promote their album as a result of the cinematic exclusion. Quill broke up early the next year.
Country Joe McDonald
The vocal anti-Vietnam War folk singer known as Country Joe reached his greatest fame fronting his psychedelic folk-rock band Country Joe & the Fish, but before that group played on Sunday, Joe took the stage for a Saturday afternoon solo performance. As the only musician to play full sets of his own music twice during the festival, Country Joe seems like he should occupy a larger entry in rock 'n' roll history. But the singer's protest-based act didn't age well, and even his famous "The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die-Rag" was eventually relegated to counter-cultural footnote status. Joe and the band broke up in the mid-'70s, and he went on to a minor solo career; Joe and some members of the old Fish have periodically reunited in the years since.
Keef Hartley Band
One of rock's great runners-up, Keef Hartley got his start as Ringo Starr's replacement in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, following the future superstar's departure from that group so that he could join the Fab Four. After his stint with the Hurricanes, Hartley went on to play with a prime, late-'60s lineup of U.K. marquee blues band John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers before the skinsman struck out on his own with this eponymous outfit. Their jazz-blues-rock mix flopped, and Keef hasn't made much music since the mid-'70s.
The Incredible String Band
The second Brits to perform at Woodstock (after U.K. compatriot Keef Hartley), Scottish psych-folks the Incredible String Band were decidedly misplaced in the festival's running order. That's apparently due to their refusal to play during Friday night's more folk-friendly bill on account of the rain. So, ISB's hastily squeezed-in set during the middle of Saturday's heavier musical action caused the overseas stars to lose some of their luster in the States. They never regained their rank, and Woodstock would prove to be the beginning of a slow end for the band, which has occasionally done limited reunions in the years since.
Somewhat dismissed at the time as simple imitators of the Eric Clapton/Jack Bruce blues-rock juggernaut Cream, frontman Leslie West and his group Mountain have come to be seen as largely underrated heavy music forefathers. Still, their Woodstock performance-which was only the band's fourth-ever gig(!)-left much to be desired and failed to launch the group into star-status. After a brief breakup in the early-'70s, Mountain reformed and has remained a group, in some capacity, to this day. Trivia: who went on after Mountain on that fateful Saturday? A little jam-rock band dubbed the Grateful Dead.
Ten Years After
Another British band that's still active today, Ten Years After successfully brought their English blues rock to these shores with their small-time classic 1968 song, "I'm Going Home." Largely thanks to captivating frontman Alvin Lee's guitar heroics on that number, the group thrilled the crowd on Sunday night. Still, it wasn't enough to sustain the band's fortunes, and they broke up in the mid-'70s before eventually reforming (mostly without Lee) a few times in the '80s and for much of this decade.
What's left of Ten Years After, as well as the current incarnations of a few other acts mentioned here, are set to play a Woodstock anniversary show-dubbed the Bethel Woods Music Festival starring Heroes of Woodstock-on Aug. 15, very near the original site and exactly 40 years later. Maybe one of them will finally get their big break!