Richie Havens has been doing this for a long time; the guy was the first performer at Woodstock. Woodstock. I have a feeling that 99 percent of the people that read this weren't alive for Woodstock. After all this time, you might think he'd have lost it, but his performance last Friday at the Old Town School of Folk Music proves that just the opposite is true.
The Old Town School was just another stop on a tour that has stretched on for 10 years. This leg is in support of his newest album, Wishing Well. Looking around, I was one of the youngest people at the show. We could hear over the oxygen tanks just fine. Havens walked out on stage, looking the same as always, though perhaps with a little more gray. He tuned his guitar, and as he played the first chord with his classic syncopated pick attack, I knew he was as good as ever, maybe even better.
He opened with a rollicking version of Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm"--not too original, but Havens made it decidedly his own. His voice, one of the most distinctive in all of music, was in supreme form, unlike most performers of his vintage (see: Bob Dylan). What followed was a string of songs from Wishing Well, arguably his best album. More covers followed: an interesting version of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "I Won't Back Down" in addition to what most of the crowd was waiting for--Havens' famous version of "Here Comes the Sun." The rest was classic Havens material: "God Bless the Child" and his famous song "Freedom," improvised at Woodstock, which was the set closer, and one of the most captivating and energetic performances I have ever seen. He capped it off with what can only be called a jump kick, and then kneeled before the crowd to receive a standing ovation.
After a brief respite, Havens returned to play an encore of two songs, finally ending the evening with "Handsome Johnny" sans any verses about either of the Iraq wars. If there was one flaw to the concert, it was the excessively long tuning breaks. Havens plays so hard that he has to retune his guitar in between every song. Unfortunately, his hearing isn't very good, so they lasted an average of about three minutes each. Havens apologized, saying, "Sorry about all the tuning. It's due to relativity. I have two ears and each one hears a different thing." This banter was typical of Havens' wonderfully self-effacing, comfortable, and silly stage manner, which only adds to the intimacy of an intimate show. Compare that to the onstage manners of others from Havens' generation (anybody seen Neil Young recently?).
After decades of experience, Havens is as impressive an entertainer as he is a musician. "My friends don't like me because I don't jam. The guitar stays in the case until I get onstage." Perhaps that is why he is still so energetic and enthusiastic about songs he has played a thousand times before. If you get a chance to see him, don't miss it.