None of Us Are Free But Some of Us Are Brave
Most of my generation (“X”) peers—especially indie rock & dance music critics—and a wide swathe of bitter boomers relentlessly disparage veteran folk artist Richie Havens. The next sarcastic words out of these cynics’ mouths, upon hearing his instantly recognizable voice, is that his unique blend of gospelly grit sends them spinning into some Woodstock Nation nightmare. The indie and dance enthusiasts would no doubt be little impressed by Havens’ recent “hip” collaborations with Groove Armada. And the aging boomers, beyond the rabid crowd present at last Friday’s Bottom Line shows in Manhattan, seem generally dismissive of Havens’ continuing commitment to folk advocacy.
This persistent indifference is more than a pity for Havens in concert was magnificent. Having not seen him since before 9/11, the tone of his performance, accompanied by a three-piece combo of guitar, congas and violinist/percussionist, was one of healing and uplift. One of the last times I’d caught his concert, at the Knitting Factory, Havens was visited pre-show by my late “Uncle” Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and I subsequently spent the bulk of the performance with the latter reminiscing about old days in DC and hearing about his time in Guinée. Henceforth, I always associate the musician who was my first true introduction to the importance of rock (via my father and an early ‘80s PBS screening of Woodstock) with fond memories and the best spirit of Uncle Kwame, a freedom fighter like Havens but somewhat at the opposite end of the spectrum, reviled for being far more confrontational (to say the least).
A score of the songs at the historic Bottom Line, drawn from the latest, exceedingly fine album Wishing Well (Stormy Forest), harkened back to the deep blues of earlier masterpieces such as Alarm Clock (recently reissued by Stormy Forest . . . hallelujah), Mixed Bag II and The Great Blind Degree and looked unflinchingly at an American landscape riddled again by crisis. A key strength of Havens, despite having emerged from the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, is that his oeuvre—covers and all—transcends the broadside tradition of forebears like Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs to arrive at something infinitely more personal and soulful. Perhaps this characteristic is due to Havens’ upbringing as a child gospel singer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Whatever the reasons, his indelible combination of sweet croon and passionate rasp infuses a voice that remains stronger and more flexible than those of the majority of his “classic rock” colleagues. Ideally, before his sun sets, Richie Havens’ great talents as an arranger (some of the biggest applause was garnered by his famous cover of the late George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”) and guitar hero status will finally be recognized (particularly by the emergent “black rock” caste so in thrall to Arthur Lee, Prince and Havens’ friend Jimi Hendrix). One of the lone black voices in a predominantly white idiom, Havens’ signature playing style of merging open E-chord tuning and haunting percussive beat with a jaw-dropping deft right hand deserves its place in the annals of rock. Old footage in rotation on Vh1 Classic demonstrates what a haunting spark the spare gathering of two guitars and congas can be.
Indeed, by the concert’s end—- which also featured up-and-coming, deep-throated singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz and an incredibly rousing version of the chestnut “Freedom/Motherless Child”—all the myriad people crowded into the nightclub were moved to their feet, ecstatic cries ringing through the space. There were even a few junior aspirants to Afro-Bohemia (of which Havens has been designated an Old Master) who’d intrepidly dared to represent rocking out in the blue gloom. The pervasive sense was that as long as Havens’ percussive left foot kept time and his fast right hand kept strumming all would be right with this turbulent world. When “Freedom” came to its fadeout, he jumped off the stool with his guitar and kicked his legs completely off the ground to the fans’ delight. And luckily this sense of carefree joy returned with the final encore, “Run Shaker Life”. While The Voices of East Harlem’s version remains the ne plus ultra, the song framed an electric portrait of the well-matured master, hunched over his guitar, rocking side to side in alt, the many rings on his fingers clicking together in polyrhythms like a dancer in a West African court. Richie Havens is a genius minstrel who continues to evolve; he’s hardly stuck in the halcyon daze of Aquarian Age phantasy except in adhering to humanism first. If y’all wanna be perpetually stuck on the notion of him self-mythologizing across the split screen of Woodstock, you’re welcome to your myopia. The rest of us who respect and honor the man will be rockin’ and rollin’ aboard the peace train.