"He plays a pretty funky guitar," was how John Lennon described Richie Havens to Rolling Stone in 1971. Unfortunately, the 65-year-old from Brooklyn battled with the instrument at this gig. He hadn't stretched his strings and they were "dancing on their own," he said. The surprisingly young gathering didn't mind a jot, as his honey-coated voice and stage presence more than made up for all the pre-song tuning.
Havens is best known for his barnstorming three-hour opening set at Woodstock in 1969. However, in spite of outstanding performances at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, the first Glastonbury in 1970 and, much later, at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, he has never really garnered the acclaim his talent deserves. In fact, until Groove Armada called in his singing services for "The Hands of Time" in 2002, Havens was one of folk rock's best-kept secrets.
Here, Havens loped onstage with his troublesome acoustic guitar and a pony-tailed guitarist. In a kaftan, Havens looked like a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Moses, with a Gandalf-like grey beard and long, ring-laden fingers. Sitting on a high stool, he steadfastly refused to amplify his guitar. He opened with a sublime "All Along the Watchtower", which Bob Dylan had taught him and which Havens in turn taught Jimi Hendrix.
Havens, who was influenced by the likes of Fred Neil and Dino Valenti, rose to prominence in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1967; the same scene that fostered Dylan and Joan Baez. The album Mixed Bag, which featured "High Flyin' Bird" and which was (unfortunately) largely ignored here, put him on the map.
He earned a reputation as an ace interpreter of Dylan's material and towards the end of this gig, his rich, soulful voice makes Dylan's unbearable "Maggie's Farm" bearable. In fact, you can forgive this gentle soul almost anything, even some of his more peculiar hippie drivel: "In eight months' time it's going to be a very different world," he giggles, and: "You guys are just like me... way, way out."
Havens played a few of his own compositions, including "We Both Know", but he preferred to apply his style to gems such as Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock", George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun", and "Freedom," which he memorably improvised at Woodstock. On "Freedom" he asked us to "clap our hands" and, like a revivalist meeting, we did. He played it with venom, thrashing his bothersome guitar like it was 1969. A sensational closer.Reuse content