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Published: 2005/04/28
by Mike Greenhaus

Richie Havens, The Little Theater, White Plains, NY-4/2

In 1969, Richie Havens offered Woodstock's opening notes. At the time, the Brooklyn-bred singer symbolized the hippie-rock movement, weaving folk driven protest songs, first person narratives and odd-time improvisations into his ever-changing set. Never as popular as Bob Dylan, or politically biting as Phil Ochs, Havens appeared to lose direction shortly after Woodstock, aging into the mainstream media's de faco Summer of Love interviewee.

Since the mid-1970s, Havens also seemed to drift from the hippie-rock movement, offering his anthems to McDonald's commercials and, unlike many of his peers, shying away from modern, jamband gatherings. Yet, in certain ways, Havens is still the missing link between the folk-rock and the modern improvisational community. An aggressive guitarist, whose percussive style is prone to jamming, Havens is equal part songwriter and musician, adding a jazzy edge to his acoustic-based music. And, though it took him over thirty years to join his jamband decedents, Havens has returned home in a sense, signing a deal with Madison House and re-emerging with the Relix-approved studio effort Grace of the Sun.

Located approximately thirty miles north of Havens' former Greenwich Village stomping grounds, the Little Theater itself remains stuck in another time, overlooking an empty arena which hosted countless metal bands throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. For his part, Havens tailored his set to meet the middle-age audience's needs, jumping between his biggest hits, select classic-rock covers and stories from the days of yore.

As a guitarist, Havens is still a forceful player. Before launching into a cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," Havens engaged in a brief, but layered, guitar duet with accompanist Walter Parks (who opened the show with a new version of his popular band the Nudes). Playing fast and abrasive, Havens focused as both a soloist and a rhythmic player, laying the groundwork for a less sophisticated, but still fleshed out sound, similar to Keller Williams' one-man band blueprint. Owing more to rock and folk than jazz, Havens left more subtle improvisations to Parks, who touched up spots between his leader's more percussive playing. For most of his set, Havens shied away from the middle-eastern and ethnic music that characterized his latest work, but did work in bits of his early gospel influences.

Yet, perhaps the most improvisational element of Havens' set was his storytelling. Like many of his folk-singing peers, Havens fashions his vocal interludes as spoken word performance, often tying his stories into his next song. Indeed, Havens devoted more time to his speeches than he did to his songs, with varied results. Before jumping into his relatively well-known take on "Watchtower," Havens narrated a somewhat confusing tale about writing down the chords to Dylan's famous anthem for Jimi Hendrix at Cafha? and eventually retiring his own take. But, nodding to the young fans in his audience, Havens eventually explained its revival: "Sometimes the youngest people ask for the oldest songs."

But, in general, Havens' stories rambled on past eloquence often diverging into somewhat odd Summer of Love mysticism. Between songs, Havens began to discuss his fascination with sci-fi, leaving much of the crowd lost in space. The guitarist did strike a chord before introducing his most popular anthem, "Freedom," by apologizing for still having to play his protest anthem well into its fourth decade. With the addition of cellist Stephanie Winters, who performed with Parks earlier in the evening, Havens added a full-band arrangement to Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," dipping into a mellow, free-form jam anchored by his trademark strumming. Meanwhile, Parks, who sounded in fine form, helping fill the middle ground between Havens' solos and rhythmic work.

For many years, Havens has professed his love of the Beatles, even recording an album of Beatles/Bob Dylan tributes in the mid-1990s. In fact, it was a cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" which provided the guitarist with his final top-twenty hit. Snatching a few additional lyrics from "Here Comes the Sun's" album-mate "The End," Havens extended Harrison's first-hit, leaning on Parks to provide the song's chirpy hooks. It was also during this cover that Havens seemed to affirm his current stage persona in breezing through numbers by well-known acts as a way to keep the 1960s spirit alive.

Inadvertently, Havens' performance explained the party line between modern jambands and nostalgic hippie-rock outfits. Though Havens still builds his set around his solid guitar work, his show is catered around any overall message—-one rooted in tie-dye . By contrast, most jam-acts have made a conscious decision to stray away from overt political commentary, preferring to speak through their music. But, what makes Havens still a vital artist is his ability to use his varied performance techniques—-guitar playing, vocal narrations and singer/songwriter confessions—-to spread a message of "peace, love and happiness." And, while a bit dated, when he combines all of these elements into a single performance, Havens is able to create a rather bold statement.

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