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Road Warrior

Richie Havens savors the '60s ethos

By Greg Cahill

What if Treebeard--the musty, soulful über-baritone-singing ent that kept watch on the forest of Fangorn in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings--could strum a booming jumbo acoustic guitar with all the ferocity of history crashing in around our ears and offer fiery interpretations of folk, rock and pop songs? He might sound a lot like Richie Havens, a folksinger with roots firmly planted in the hippie ethic of the Summer of Love and who rose to fame through his electrifying 1969 appearance at Woodstock.

But there's nothing musty about Havens.

The 63-year-old troubadour has managed to stay true to his ideals, musically, spiritually and politically, through turbulent times that have seen his contemporaries embrace the fads of the '80s and '90s. Remember the Grateful Dead's 1980 flirtation with disco on "Feel Like a Stranger"? Or Neil Young's apparently passing but nonetheless embarrassing embrace of neo-con patriotism "Let's Roll"? And how about Bob Dylan's recent TV ad for Victoria's Secret, in which the aging minstrel teamed up with a steamy Brazilian supermodel to hawk ladies' underwear?

Havens, the New York-born singer, songwriter and guitarist known for his visceral folk-rock guitar style and positive but often bittersweet lyrics, got his start playing at Cafe Wha and other Greenwich Village clubs in the mid-'60s during the heyday of the folk revival. His breakthrough came with 1968's Something Else Again, an album that propelled Havens onto the charts and sparked sales of his overlooked first three albums. You knew he had become an icon when comedian Christopher Guest sang a cutting portrait of the folkie on National Lampoon's 1973 album Lemmings. None of that fazed Havens, who went to record a string of albums that blended folk, rock, soul and even jazz in tribute to Dylan, the Beatles and others.

But it was his 1969 Woodstock performance--35 years ago this month--that defined Havens, even as it introduced him to a new generation weaned on the psychedelicized pop of the Beatles and the crashing garage rock of such British invasion bands as the Who and the Kinks. Havens was the opening act at the landmark three-day counter-culture gathering in upstate New York, performing eight songs in the early morning of day one that included his show-stopping original "Freedom," a runaway train of a tune later included in filmmaker Michael Wadleigh's hugely popular 1970 documentary about the festival.

Since then, Havens has never strayed far from the spirit of those three rain-soaked days during which more than a half million mud-splattered and acid-sated youths celebrated peace and love on Max Yasgur's farm. "The events of those three days in August of 1969 were unprecedented," he wrote on the liner notes to 1999's Time, a seven-song self-produced recording commemorating the festival. "More than 700,000 people of every age represented the spirit of our times . . . peace instead of war, love instead of hate. Harmony. To us, it was obvious--we were already living it.

"From that weekend on, millions more of us than ever before realized for the first time that the lines are nonexistent. A positive new horizon is visible, and it is up to us to reach it."


Richie Havens performs Friday, Aug. 6, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $25. 707.765.2121.


Spin Du Jour

Courtney Pine, 'Devotion' (Telarc)

British saxophonist Courtney Pine's career has been all over the map since he emerged in the 1980s under the banner of the next Wynton Marsalis. This promising reedman--and, as evidenced on this disc, talented multi-instrumentalist--has great credentials: he fell under the tutelage of jazz messenger Art Blakey for a spell, toured with George Russell and roamed the post-bop landscape with fellow traveler John Stevens. But his flirtation with hip-hop jazz hybrids and other fusion projects sometimes soared ecstatically but just as often veered into creative ruts. In some ways, this new 12-track disc mirrors the frustration felt by his fans, meandering somewhat aimlessly from electronica and funk to soul jazz and Quiet Storm-type ballads. But it is the flashes of musical innovation and brilliant production that recommend this disc, most notably the dubwise Afropop of the title track, the dreamy cool of "With All My Love," the scintillating Bollywood jazz of "Karma" and especially "Translusance," with its sensuous blend of searing soprano sax, snaking sitars and simmering tabla beats. Imagine an entire album of modern world music of this kind with Pine at the helm. I'd book a flight on that trip.

--G.C.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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