I hope that you and I have something in common. I hope, like me, you have a few events in your life, maybe a handful even, that are unique. Not unique because they only happened to you, like that time your Aunt Rosemary pinched your ass as you walked by her at Easter Brunch. You can save that unique event for your therapist. No, I'm talking about the type of unique event where you didn't wonder if this was going to be a momentous occasion while you were experiencing it. You knew it was going to be important before it ever took place. Rites of passage in our culture carry such significance; the day you lost your virginity, the day you got married, your first day of work. Hopefully, they didn't occur in that order. How do we know these events are going to be of great consequence before they even happen? I can't explain it, we just know.
The same can be said for musical experiences. My first Phish show is important to me now, but only because it has grown to be so. At the time, I only knew it was enjoyable music. As years passed and the band's significance in my life and our culture grew, the show became a milestone. However, even before I arrived in Baltimore two Augusts ago, I knew that seeing The Who was going to be important. It was the type of thing that could be checked off the "Do This Before You Die" list- right between nude sunbathing and skiing Colorado Champagne Powder. Check, check, check. See Dylan- check. McCartney- check. CSN- check. All of these acts have been moguls since before I was born. To see them is to see history in the flesh. This past Sunday night, I was able to check another such achievement off my list when I once again traveled to The Higher Ground, this time to see Richie Havens.
The floor was crowded with rows of chairs and large candlelit tables in the back giving the venue a more intimate feel then it usually has- an effect magnified by the lack of equipment on the stage. This night there were only three stools and three mic stands. However briefly, a Greenwich coffee house of the '60s had been resurrected. Because the opener started uncharacteristically on time, I was only able to catch the last few songs of his set. Sitting in the chair and singing into the mic that would soon become the minions of an icon, Rick Redington held his own. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, Rick sang stories that were a picture into the man. In one song, I learned he was a father and lost his, he has had love and it had gone astray, and The Beatles and Bob Marley are probably in his iPod. But he went even deeper. He told us about his principles, his morals, ethics and generally pleasant disposition. He did all this with a booming voice and melodic acoustic picking. In an age of cynicism and greed, Rick Redington sang without inhibition about those things that he holds dear and, from my seat, I saw one person high above the crowd with a long white beard and smooth bald head who came from his comfortable green room to show appreciation for such honest song crafting.
Richie Havens is a mogul. For anyone who has seen the 'Woodstock' movie or heard its soundtrack, as Kevin the owner of The Higher Ground said during his personal welcome to the stage, "you can't help but know who he is." When he took the stage, Richie did not look like the years had treated him badly. Smooth skin, thick hair- on his chin- and a smile for ear to ear made me feel like he was as happy to be on the stage as I was to see him there. He opened with some general strumming and tuning, accompanied by Walter Parks on electric guitar. Mr. Parks has an uncanny ability to look completely disinterested in what is transpiring on stage, all the while playing lead with a symbiotic sense of what chord Richie is going to play next, whether part of a song or part of a tune-up. His on-stage persona looked to have been perfected over the years, from his mid-length sleeves to keep his arms free for playing, to his well-manicured mustache and flavor-saver to give something to remember him by for those that didn't recognize his incredible salt as a musician. Give him 12 bars and he will fill it with the most eloquent rehearsed solo you have heard since the studio version of 'Hotel California'.
The opening jam petered off and Richie began to speak. His voice is like that of a grandfather you have the deepest respect for. He told us the story of a song, as song that he had asked a friend if he could play. That friend said yes and for five years he opened his shows with that song. Then a friend came to him and asked if he could play that song. Richie obliged, but the new friend did something unthinkable. He recorded the song. Richie took the song out of his repertoire, only to revive it at the behest of a younger fan in the last few years. 'All Along The Watchtower' boomed out of Richie's acoustic and Walter's electric. The song had the power of the Jimi Hendrix recording and the simplicity and message of a folk song, as it has been originally intended by Dylan.
At 67 years, young, you might expect Richie to play only the hits that put him on the map, but his career has produced countless albums, collaborations and even movie cameos and his choices for this night's set spanned the entirety of his path to South Burlington, epitomized early by the hard-driving '3:10 to Yuma'. This railroad song pulsated forward, and, as it wound down, Richie began moving his guitar further and further from the microphone, recreating the sound of a train going into the night.
The accompaniment on the stage began rotating. At times it was just Richie, at other times he was joined by Walter Parks, and for the next few tunes, he was joined by Stephanie Winters on cello. Her playing was nothing but complementary, filling spaces with symphonic beauty. During a rousing cover of 'Maggie's Farm', she turned her cello into the band's percussion, pounding her bow on the tightly gripped strings to fill the low end necessary to give this song its revered due.
Despite the fact that Richie plays his guitar with a bass pick, you can't expect him to spend all his time in the lower register. The stiff triangular pick simply allows him to ferociously sound out each string when strumming, creating 6 individual notes, rather than one blended chord, best exemplified when the trio found their way into the chorus of The Who's 'Won't Get Fooled Again', in which Richie and Stephanie effectively recreated the original synthesized percussive sound on their acoustic instruments.
One of the things that brought Richie Havens to the forefront of American pop-culture in the mid-1960s was his political activism. Such a willingness to take a stance went hand in hand with the folk scene of Greenwich Village at that time. On this night, an older and wiser, yet just as pointed version came through between most songs in the form of improvised soliloquies. Richie told us his theory of how Superman exemplified progress in a technical era, how stickball shows we are all related and how the form of "representin'" is in the vernacular of today's urban youth is exemplified less by gangs and more by Washington insiders. Feeling a little lost about the connection between any of these topics? Good, then you are right where I was in the dark trying to scribble down all of these off the wall theories as Richie spewed them onto us.
One thing that was simple and too the point Richie told us was that he only knows one happy song, and he wanted to dedicate it to the kids because 'they are the aliens that are walking among us. They are going to take care of us and clean up the planet… whether we want them to or not." OK, the alien part didn't make too much sense, but nonetheless, by dedicating his version of The Beatles 'Here Comes The Sun' to the next generation, Richie showed that, despite his feelings that the current state of the world is one of confusion, separation, and contempt, the future holds the promise or progress... whether we're ready for it or not.
No Richie Haven's performance since that sunny afternoon in upstate New York, when Richie was slated to take the stage fifth, but went on first, when he continued to play until he played every song he knew and started taking requests and even made up new verses to extend the length of established songs, has been complete without 'Freedom' and as the last full song of the set, it gave us the closure we needed. Yet, the man who has defied the aging process got out of his seat and delivered a karate kick in the direction of the audience had been telling us all night, a convention like closure simply opens up new doors. He exemplified the night's message with an a cappella serenade to the audience during our appreciative standing ovation, singing 'You Are So Beautiful' to us, not for us.
The trio returned to the stage for an encore that sent us on our way with hope for what the future may bring. I feel it only fitting to end this review with the words that Richie used to end the night.
Please save me, I am falling here
I am lost and alone…
And in the end, the sun will rise for one more day.