the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Richie Havens 2009 performance in Barre Vermont

Back to the Garden

Richie Havens opened Woodstock 40 years ago screaming “Freedom”. That voice epitomized the zeitgeist of a generation where people saw the possibility of up-ending the established order. As Mr. Dylan reminded us back then; “The times they are a-changin’”. And nothing changes faster than those on the cutting edge who come to represent their time. There is a sense of awkwardness in hearing the contemporary Bob Dylan, even though he recently became one of the oldest performers to score a number one hit single. He seems to have morphed into a curmudgeon superstar with a social agenda that sits hazily in the background. He shields himself from being a “sell out” by professing he never really “bought in”. Your problem with Bob is YOUR problem – not his. Havens, on the other hand, has a genuine aura of someone who has dedicated himself to the “counter-culture”. This sounds odd given that Havens was for a time the voice of Amtrak: “Climb Aboard America!”. The spirit of the ‘60s was one of embracing individualism while adopting a communal sense of the greater good. Putting politics and history aside – Havens, the performer, embodies the best of what is meant by being “a hippie”.

It was a few degrees below zero when I entered the Barre Opera house to see the show. The crowd was a mixture of aging hippies, farmers, business people and Vermont “folk”. I was seated in back of the handicapped section and I wondered what the elderly woman was doing during Havens’ famous performance on Max Yasgur’s farm. Something told me that she would have had more in common with the New York dairy farmer than the young African American folkie from Brooklyn. But never the less here we all were – 40 years later. Havens came on stage with a very proficient accompanist Walter Parks – Havens provided the voice and percussive strumming while Parks gave the perfect solos and fill. Havens, at 68, is a towering bald presence with a grey beard which rests gently over his African or Indian tunic – he wore a brown version in ’69. Despite this sounding scruffy and exotic the whole outfit fits him as a grand presence – someone you would take note of in public as being dignified and important. You would never notice his stage partner. Parks, a quiet white hipster, is technically brilliant but there is no mistaking the main attraction – akin to Maury Muehleisen's performances with Jim Croce…. Walter knows that everyone is there to see Richie no matter how much guitar pyrotechnics he performs – but he also is aware that Richie appreciates his ability and doesn’t see him as anything less than himself. I read nothing about these two together – their relationship is revealed in the duets and body language. There is an easy effortlessness to their interactions, which speaks of something more than professionalism amongst colleagues – more akin to master craftsmen at their trade.

That voice. If you read the transcripts of Havens stage patter it would seem incoherent, random and rambling. It might be all those things but the delivery converts the banter into a soothing, restful parable. The stories are disjointed but they seem to rest on the idea that Mr. Havens is celebrating every moment of life and his warm exuberance is all encompassing. There were stories about children, his family, other folkies, aging, dying, living – but all incorporated in the warm fabric of his voice. One has the temptation of leaning back and closing your eyes – not in boredom – just a restful respite. The stage talk fits in with the music. Havens’ strong rumbling guitar has two modes: preaching “truth to power” or caressing like a lover. He can alternate moods with a flick of the wrist – unlike most popular entertainers, he has been at this for a lifetime. Walter is in the background giving the right chord or solo. His consummate studied approach blends perfectly with Haven’s strange thumb figuring bar chords (most players use the pointer finger) and quasi-slide approach to positioning the instrument on his lap – he has BOTH an upper and lower fret-board surrounding the guitar’s sound hole as he frantically strums at a 45 degree angle. The combo is a visual representation of the importance of formal training and street smarts – the sound has an exhilarating cry that has a heart in addition to a head.

Mr. Havens quietly smiles; unlike at Woodstock he now has teeth. He looks out into an audience of cold, very uncool, rural white Vermonters and says: “I’m happy to be here. At this point I’m happy to be anywhere. And we (referring to Walter as well) know that if you weren’t there. We wouldn’t be here”. Within seconds everyone is one their feet cheering on the bearded man with the weird guitar. You might not know what he means – but he means it. In these troubled times it is easy to look back at the sixties’ idealism with scorn. Mr. Havens gentle, firm resilience stands as an answer to Elvis Costello’s song-question “What’s so funny ‘bout peace love and understanding?” The contemporary Mr. Dylan might say “Maybe peace, love and understanding are silly”. Mr. Havens, however, holds firm. When he greets you by saying “peace” you know, as everyone did in Barre, that he really means it.

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