Here’s a few things I know about Richie Havens that I didn’t know before attending his wonderful performance Friday night at the appropriately folky Greenwich Village hotspot Le Poisson Rogue: He still has full command of that amazing rhythmic guitar style, with open tuning and thumb frets—fast and furious one moment, note by beautiful note in others; he still sings with a depth of feeling that defies any but the deepest cynicism; he has a brother who looks exactly like him; he still favors bright shiny hippie rings on almost every gigantic finger (the better to play guitar with, my darling); and, perhaps most significantly, he believes that Pluto should still be a planet.
A Brooklyn native, returning to the very epicenter of the folk scene that made him a star in the 60’s, Havens captivated a capacity crowd with his music and pleasantly confounded them with his words. Best known these days as the opening act of the original Woodstock festival, Havens neither revels in nostalgia nor walks away from his past struggles and glories. While many of his contemporaries have long since ceded the Age of Aquarius, Havens assures us that despite some delays (and the suspicious loss of one planet), it’s still on its way. He hasn’t stopped believing, and neither should we.
And that’s where the cynicism might creep in, if you weren’t around to hear the music. A nonstop, command performance, with Havens sparingly accompanied on steel guitar and cello, flowing gracefully through the powerful, vital tracks from last month’s Nobody Left to Crown, his 27th album since becoming a professional musician at age 16. Plus, naturally, a few greatest hits and covers of The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” and The Who’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again.”
And when it was all over, he set up shop in the lobby of the club, to greet fans and sign autographs, before playing another show an hour later… Obviously, something keeps this guy going. He’s on a mission.
In the middle of his set, significantly not the encore, Havens broke into the “Motherless Child” improvisation that crystallized his immortal Woodstock performance as one of the most iconic of all time, complete with it’s repeated refrain of “Freedom!”
I’m sure he does it every show. But now, after seeing for myself, I’m also sure that he really can access that time and place, and bring it to a room full of people. Well, a glimpse of it, at least.
And then Richie Havens told us that a group of four foot tall aliens called “children” are going to clean up the planet, whether we like it or not. That’s a message worth carrying on.