Richie Havens, Jazz Café, London

A blissful haven for Sixties folk
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"You're doing it, you're really doing it tonight", said one fan after Havens' spellbinding cover of "All Along the Watchtower". And he was. This was a downright ferocious performance, and all from a man who by rights should be applying for his free bus pass by now.

The setting, too, was perfect. The Jazz Café's design is such that the crowd are a broken pick away from the artist, which allowed the audience to see a performer in total control, and giving it everything. So, as Dylan's four-chord wonder opened the evening, we were treated to the sight of a guitarist bar-chording top down with this thumb, a technique which not only looks impressive, but gives him range and speed.

Add to that a left foot which flails about as if independent from the rest of the old man's body, and you have a sense of a unique live music experience.

The pace of the evening fluctuated, though, as exten- sive retuning between songs allowed the audience respite. One might have thought that this kind of pedantic noodling would be irritating, but the man has turned tuning into an art form. It's not just the engaging banter - "Our government spends trillions getting us into outer space. We're already there!" - but the fact that Havens clearly loves to fool about with a progression or riff. And, just when one thinks that the next song is never going to come around, there it is, emerging from a retuned A-string or a throwaway chord.

And so on to the meat of the performance, where Havens was skilfully assisted by his fellow guitarist, Walter Parks. "Paradise is a Hard Place to Find" was delivered with grace, as Havens bent and wrapped his voice around an ostensibly prosaic tune. "Blood on the Wire", with its Spanish chord-progressions and tub-thumping rhythms, captured an end-of-era loss of innocence. Moreover, Havens insistent phrasing of "there is still blood on the wire" is a reminder that this performer has lost none of his world-changing energy.

The support left the stage for a central solo mini-set which included an understated "Here Comes the Sun", a song that Havens describes as "the happiest song I know". There was a little disillusionment evident, though, in the baritone growl of the chorus. "Stardust", too, was breathtaking, with the rich, maudlin chords of the bridge offering a poignant alternative to the ballad's upbeat message.

The band - now four strong with two guitars, cello and bongos - re-emerged for a final set which climaxed with a manic rendition of "Freedom", the song which made Havens famous at Woodstock in 1969. That left foot got going again, and he sang "Freedom" as if it were the first time. The audience, too, responded frenetically to a rhythmic pace which was going through the roof, and which was eventually curtailed by an athletic and wholly un- expected scissor kick from the leading man.

But this audience was never going to let Havens away without an encore, and he reeled out two more ballads from the new material he has recorded. The highlight of the evening, though, came with his final number, an unaccompanied version of Joe Cocker's 1975 classic "You Are So Beautiful". As the audience left, sweating and happy, the only possible reservation was that Havens was a couple of songs light of a balanced set. But as the man is 64 years old, we might just let him off.