Still singing for freedom
Legendary folk artist Richie Havens returns to a warm reception in Paradise
Richie Havens is a storyteller. Oh, sure, if you look him up in the rock-'n'-roll history books, you’ll find “folk singer” next to his name, but that tag doesn’t do him justice.
Last Thursday, Havens returned to the exquisite Paradise Performing Arts Center armed with anecdotes and musical arrangements harvested over the last 40 years. He also came with a bunch of new songs from his soon-to-be-released studio album, Wishing Well.
After tuning up for some time, Havens signaled that his guitar strings ultimately sounded so-so."They have to get worked into their prime,” he explained. “It’s like people. Somewhere in the middle they get good. When you’re old nobody listens to you; when you’re young nobody listens to you. And somewhere in the middle, you get to say a lot. It’s weird.”
Havens radiated the spirit of the 1960s, in terms of style, philosophy and song selection. Dressed in his trademark long robe and accessorized with eight thick silver rings and several turquoise bracelets, the balding, silver-bearded singer/guitarist rightfully played the part of one of hippiedom’s surviving elders.
He began the show with Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” and visited Dylan’s catalog twice more during the two-set concert, with “Just Like a Woman” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Though Havens turned 61 last week, he energetically strummed many songs at his customary double-time pace, and his still-strong, rich, smooth voice melted in our ears. Many songs ended as Havens spun slowly in his seat and played until he almost faced backward, creating a natural audio fadeout.
Guitarist Walter Parks shadowed Havens’ strumming, providing interesting and innovative lead guitar licks that enhanced Havens’ rhythms. Havens strummed to several crescendos during the night, and each one inspired the crowd to respond with its vocal approval.
The first set, made up mostly of classics, included Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance” ("You know that you’ve seen it before, where a government lies to a people, and a country is drifting to war") and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which gave Havens his only bona-fide hit single, reaching No. 16 in 1971.
He also performed the politically charged “What About Me,” a song with which Quicksilver Messenger Service enjoyed moderate success. He led into that number with a long, delightful story about Dino Valente, the man who wrote the song, and in colorful detail he described his experiences with Valente, a beatnik before his time, from a tiny Greenwich Village, New York folk club basement to sunny Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif.
The second set leaned heavily on Havens’ 25th album, Wishing Well, and included the uplifting “On the Road to Calvary” as well as “Handouts in the Rain,” a hard-hitting tale of the homeless. Most of the songs, politically postured from the left, spoke to human rights and other issues Havens holds dear. A lyric from a new song called “Paradise” took on double meaning at this particular show when Havens sang, “Paradise is a hard place to find.”
Havens said that, more or less, he’s been on the road since December 1967. And it’s obvious he’s enjoyed every bit of the journey. “Songs,” Havens said, “make us look inside and consider our place in this world, as individuals and responsible beings.”
He closed with his most widely known song, “Freedom,” which sounded just as vital after Sept. 11 as it did when he sang it at Woodstock. He performed his encore a cappella, singing a poignant version of one of Pink Floyd’s later hits, “On the Turning Away.” The song of equality, which will be the final cut on Wishing Well, was a fitting end to the show: "Just one world which we all must share; it’s not enough to stand and stare."