Second String

When World was young: The Incredible String Band picks up where it left off 30-odd years ago.

They turned on and tuned in for the kids at Woodstock. Then the Incredible String Band dropped out. Thirty-five years ago, the Scottish folk-rock trio was at its peak: There were sold-out shows in the U.K., a rabid following that devoured every note it played, and respect from peers like Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Robert Plant. And then? "We broke up in New York in 1974," sighs guitarist Mike Heron. "We got caught up in that whole stadium-rock scene.

"We toured with Three Dog Night, and they had all these huge structures, like drum risers. And that's so far away from what we were doing. We knew we weren't going to last very long after that."

The Incredible String Band mixed and mingled Celtic, folk, bluegrass, rock, pop, and Middle Eastern sounds two decades before it became fashionable. It drew audiences that included both pipe-smoking academics and pot-puffing hippies. And it was playing world music before anyone figured out a name for it. "We did well," says Heron.

Albums, tours, and soundtrack recordings followed a watershed year that began with the release of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (the band's third album and acknowledged masterpiece) and culminated in a performance at Woodstock in 1969. Heron, banjo player Clive Palmer, and fiddler Robin Williamson even joined Pink Floyd on the road. It was a wonderful time, acknowledges Heron. "It was paradise. But we lost our way."

Heron and Palmer are touring again as the Incredible String Band. They haven't played in the U.S. in more than 30 years. They also have a new CD, Nebulous Nearnesses, which revisits some of their best songs, recorded live at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. But there are no plans for new material. "We've yet to make the next step," Heron laughs. "Nobody knows what we're going to do. A lot of fans haven't heard this old stuff live. So we're enjoying this, and we're adding little things to it all the time."