Richie Havens brings real folk back to Boston

A review of Richie Havens at the Remis Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts on December 20

, Contributing Writer

When we think of a folk singer today, we often have in mind someone with a guitar, singing their own songs. This is a recent idea, of course, not very long ago a folk singer was someone with a guitar singing “folk music”, that is, music of the people – some other people, generally, at some great remove of time or space. Previous to this, however, folk singers were simply folks who sang. They were called folk singers to distinguish them from proper singers who put on a funny voice and evening wear to sing songs they got from a book. This species of folk singers would learn songs from other folks who sang them, and the songs would change as people forgot verses or made up new ones or failed to understand the ones they got and re-arranged them to make sense to them. The important thing is not who they were or where they sang or on what occasions their music was used, the important thing is what they sang: they sang the music that they heard and liked well enough to sing again for others. They’re still out there, and they’re the real thing.

In this sense, Richie Havens is a real folk singer, and a one man folk processor. For over forty years, he’s been hearing songs, considering them, and playing them for audiences, and he’s still at it. The songs he plays are not what we normally think of as “folk songs” but that’s only because we’re still stuck in the “folk revival” idea of folk music. Real folk music isn’t concerned with reviving or preserving anything, it’s just people singing to each other – and that’s what Richie Havens does. He finds songs that are worth singing, and he sings them. He doesn’t seem too concerned about where the songs come from, but more about what he can do with them – which is a lot. His idiosyncratic guitar style would seem limiting (he tunes the guitar to an open chord and plays it with his thumb) but it doesn’t stop him from tackling all sorts of material, from Joe Cocker to Bob Dylan, from Joni Mitchell to Chaka Khan. His trump card of course is his voice, a& rich and rough voice equally suited to a holler or a croon. Backed by a second guitarist and a cellist, Havens used this voice to explore an odd cross section of what we might call the folk music of the late twentieth century.

This was not a night of musical taxidermy, however, hauling out the stuffed corpses of old songs and parading them around the room. Havens played music by legitimate “folk” artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but he also played a song that was a minor hit for a New York dance band called “the Odyssey” and another recorded by Chaka Khan in 1985, as well as one made popular by Joe Cocker, and even one or two that Havens himself wrote. If all of this sounds like a mess, it wasn’t, because Havens is not a cover band, trying to reproduce the songs as they were recorded. He absorbs a song and makes it his own, so that when he sings it it sounds like a Richie Havens song. This allowed him to use the songs to do the work that he wanted them to do, and not to be used by them. Originally an electronics-driven vehicle for Chaka Khan’s soaring vocal with a dance-floor beat, “My Love is Alive” became an affirmation of life and the will to carry on. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, most known for the anthemic treatment of the chorus given by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was inverted – the choruses were minimized here, with the lyrical weight shifting to the verses. Havens seemed much more interested in the bombers turning into butterflies in the last verse than he was in getting us back to the garden. All in all, Havens is not afraid to bask in what today we might call the “naive hippie optimism” of the song, and that’s a fine thing. But almost as though to show that he’s got some cynicism in him, this was followed by a reading of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” which briefly segued into the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – certainly an interesting choice of a song in the wake of the recent election.

Overt political topics were not raised in the concert; the closest Havens came to a statement of that sort was a reference to the current President’s running battle with the English language, which was followed by a nice reading of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. The song, however, was a sure bet, being one of Havens’ bigger hits, so it might have been a coincidence…

The high point of the set, as one might expect, was “Freedom”, the song for which Havens has been best known since it appeared on the Woodstock album. Amazingly, that voice is still as powerful an instrument as it ever was, most comparable in its tone and range to a tenor sax. On this song, his vocal is arranged very much like a late-period John Coltrane solo: opening with a two-note riff (“freedom… freedom…”) that repeats and opens out (“some times/ I feel/ like a motherless child”) until it releases and resolves at the top of its arc (“…a long… way… from my home…”) before diving back in for more. It’s a stunning performance today, and if it’s a set piece (much of the phrasing and delivery is very close to the original 1969 performance) it’s still a work of singing that has very little to equal it. With this to close out the set, in his encore Havens showed off another side of his tenor saxophone voice, singing the Billy Preston song “You Are So Beautiful” like a latter-day Coleman Hawkins: a rich and warm tone, staying so close to the melody that every push or pull on the rhythm shows you precisely how much control he’s got to play with, and how little he needs to show off.

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