The song never remains the same for freewheeling singer-guitarist
Bernard Perusse , The Gazette
It's common enough for jazz musicians to work without a net, with
only the basic framework of their live set planned out. Such daring
is far more unusual in the kind of roots music Richie Havens plays.
Yet not only does Havens perform without a net, he takes it on blind
faith that the tightrope will hold.
It always does.
When the Brooklyn-born singer-guitarist walks out to face his
audience, he knows only two things: the first song and the closing
one. Everything in between will be dictated by the feel of the crowd.
At 67, he still makes those spontaneous choices around 200 nights a year.
"There's a certain vibe I pick up," the amiable singer-songwriter
said in a recent telephone interview. "I call it breathing. I walk
out on the stage and they applaud - which is exhaling. And I'm
inhaling. I exhale in playing the song and they're inhaling it, and
at the end they exhale and clap again. And it's out of that feeling
that I get what to sing next. I'm an audience, too."
One of Havens's most well-known performances - singing Freedom at the
Woodstock music festival in 1969 - came about through that same
mystical process. It's captured in the Woodstock movie, released the
following year. Pushed by organizers to extend his festival-opening
set while logistics were worked out to cope with blocked roads and
bringing other acts to the stage, Havens pulled the idea for the
improvised number out of nowhere, he said. "I started singing
'freedom' because I said to myself, 'This is the freedom my
generation has been looking for - and this is it. This is the
beginning of the world.' "
Part of the sentiments came from being flown to the festival site by
helicopter. From the size of the crowd, which ultimately grew to
400,000, Havens concluded that the voice of youth could no longer be
marginalized, he explained. "When I looked down on that crowd, I
said, 'They can't hide this anymore.' This was not only a game, but
we took the hill, and the consciousness in music came through it. It
all paid off," he said.
It was only after the festival and the movie spinoff that public
demand forced Havens to turn Freedom - a combination of off-the-cuff
exhortations and the traditional spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a
Motherless Child - into a bona fide song, he said.
It's what Havens does best: putting his stamp on material from many
sources. "Covering" actually seems too feeble a word for what he
does. It's more like reimagining. It might be George Harrison's Here
Comes the Sun or Stephen Stills's Helplessly Hoping, but in the end,
they all wind up percussive, soulful and generally sounding like
Havens wrote them. And that goes double for his frequent visits to
the Bob Dylan songbook.
"When I first met him, I made up a characterization for him: I called
him the poet that got to sing his poems," he said.
Havens remembered one Dylan song that challenged his skills as an
interpreter. He said he was usually a quick study with songs, nailing
them in two or three tries - until Dylan's A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
"It took me eight days to figure out what I had to do to sing this
song," he said. "All of a sudden I realized the one thing I didn't
even think of: I'm sitting here looking at this verse - and the first
sentence has nothing to do with the previous sentence or the one that
comes behind it, and the one behind that is, in the same way, not
connected. So I said, 'It's a movie! I have to look at each line and
see the physical picture of what he was saying.' It took me two
minutes to get the rest down."
Coincidentally, Havens can be seen in Todd Haynes's I'm Not There,
a movie that also reimagines - in this case, Dylan's various
personas. Havens credited Haynes with "filming the invisible."
Havens said he has known Dylan since their early folk days in
Greenwich Village and that the two still bump into each other on the
road. Dylan will also be 67 next month, and both musicians are still
out there performing on a punishing schedule.
Havens said he never thinks about the physical stamina such a regimen
must require: "There are two things that, if I didn't have them, I
wouldn't miss them - and that's sleeping and eating." He said he
generally sleeps between 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. and tries unsuccessfully
to go back to sleep for another hour and a half. He acquired the
habit in his younger days, by staying up watching late movies with
his mother. "Ideas would come," he said. "Those were my educational hours."
Very much unlike Dylan, however, Havens has a long-standing
reputation for meeting with his fans after shows. "The only thing I
learn is, 'Geez, I was here yesterday, even though I was in another
place,' " he said, laughing. "They're family to me."
That reminded him of a conversation with his mother. "My mother
called me one day, when I was about 19, in Greenwich Village," he
remembered. "She said, 'Your grandmother's too much. She just told me
a story about you. She said she asked you what you wanted to do when
you grow up, and you said you wanted to meet everybody in the whole
world,' " Havens said, chuckling heartily.
"It's actually happening," he added, as the laugh grew into a guffaw.
Richie Havens performs in Montreal, April 26 at the Oscar Peterson
Hall. For more information, go to http://richiehavens.com/.