Bernard Perusse, Canwest News Service
Published: Sunday, July 06, 2008
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 rope 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. He performs at 8:50 p.m. Friday at Bluesfest International.
"There's a certain vibe I pick up," the amiable singer-songwriter
said in a recent phone 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' best-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
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 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,'" 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.
"Cover" actually seems too feeble a word for what he does. It's more
like re-imagining. 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.
Havens remembered one Dylan song that challenged his skills as an
interpreter. "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 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 came along.
"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."