Richie Havens represents the best and worst of the Sixties
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 24, 2002) – We need Richie Havens around to remind us of the best and worst of the Sixties, and he did both at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Saturday night.
He reminded us of the best in his versions of songs by Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday and the like, in his soulful sincerity, and in his challenge to his audience to live the values of peace and freedom they once and presumably still do espouse.
In his performance he is the living embodiment of some of these values, taking a minimum of tools and making the most of them, demonstrating that even if you lack the technical means you can accomplish a lot merely through following through on good intentions.
He proved this in overcoming his inability to play the guitar conventionally, by turning his improvised beginner’s technique – tuning the strings to an open-chord and barring them with thumb and fingers – into a patented style of his own, and drawing on his sheer power, energy and enthusiasm to provide a rhythmic bed with his strumming right hand, making for a kind of groove music all its own.
He proved this by juxtaposing his own lesser efforts at songwriting, generic hippie anthems including “Stardust and Passion,” “Alone Together” and “Handouts in the Rain,” all from his most recent album, “Wishing Well,” alongside aptly-chosen songs by his colleagues, such as Dylan’s “License to Kill,” a lesser-known tune by Dylan that in its confused blend of mysticism and politics sits perfectly alongside Haven’s material.
Unfortunately, in this case, Havens neglected to learn the words to the song, and halfway through the first verse, after he botched the line, “sell his body like they sell used cars” – substituting the word “tell” for “sell” both times – he quickly brought the song to an end with another chorus.
Second guitarist Walter Parks offered occasional accompaniment that was as non-descript as Havens’s own playing.
Unfortunately, Havens also reminded us of the worst of the Sixties, in the sort of knee-jerk, preaching-to-the-converted, self-satisfied dismissal of a very complex, sophisticated problem facing the world. “I haven’t seen any proof of anything,” Havens whispered over and over again in his whispery Zen master persona – we were all supposed to get the reference and automatically agree with him. And indeed, the audience did, going right along with Havens and his nutty, left-wing conspiracy theories that are the mirror-image of right-wing ones.
“The military are the producers of CNN,” he declared as a truism, after offering a more frightening, vague koan – that “some places in the world they’re telling the truth.” Where? In places where they say President Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 plot? Or in places where millions believe that 4,000 Jews who worked at the World Trade Center were warned to stay home from work that day?
This was all prelude to Havens’s concluding anthem, “Freedom,” which he has been offering to audiences for over three decades as a way for them to capture something they think they missed by not being at the original Woodstock festival.
Singer-songwriter Jess Klein warmed up the audience with a short set of her own moody, hypnotic folk-rock songs that variously channeled influences of Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and Joan Baez. Hearing her crystal-clear voice with its natural quaver in the Mahaiwe was a gift. If Klein tightened up her own loose guitar playing, or if she handed over the instrumental duties to an accompanist, she would be unstoppable.
However you felt about Havens’s talents or politics or lack of such, it was thrilling once again to see every seat in the Mahaiwe Theatre filled with bodies ranging in age from pre-schoolers to the elderly. Helsinki Presents has sporadically but consistently programmed events in the theater that are obviously attracting an audience that is otherwise being ignored or underserved in the region, and Havens was just the latest in a series of iconic American performers including Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Maceo Parker and the Blind Boys of Alabama that audiences flocked to the Mahaiwe to see. It would be a shame if these concerts stopped happening because – as talk has it -- someone wants to cash in on the success of Helsinki’s risky vision.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 26, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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