On Scene: Richie Havens and the universality of music


— Richie Havens is three times my age. And most of the people who went to see him play at the Strings Music Pavilion on Sunday have at least twice as many years behind them as I do.

It didn't matter, because Richie Havens knows what it is to play live music.

Of course, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise; Havens probably is best known for his three-hour opening set at Woodstock, and the improvised mashup of "Motherless Child" and cries for "Freedom!" he ended it with.

On stage at the Pavilion, Havens had the same fire and mannerisms that characterize that almost 40-year-old performance, and he had the same conversational tone that has made him a lasting figure on the touring circuit.

What gives Havens such presence - and what makes his covers of songs written by Bob Dylan and The Beatles sound as sincere as his original material - is his simple and genuine reasoning for doing what he does.

This is someone who got into playing music because he loves music. To Havens, who learned the guitar so he could share his favorite songs from the 1950s Greenwich Village folk scene with friends in Brooklyn, there wouldn't be any other reason to perform.

On Sunday, that love meant a show-stopping performance of "Freedom" and an especially charged rendition of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm." It also meant one of the longest and most charming monologues I have heard from a musician in a while. Starting out with a how-to on playing stickball in Brooklyn, Havens worked his way around pop culture and personal references from the 1950s and 1960s until he had the entire audience reciting the opening lines to the original "Superman" TV series.

His basic point was that we are not so different.

And really, Havens doesn't need stories or monologues or comic book heroes to prove that point. It already was evident in the hoots and hollers that followed "Freedom" and in the way that as the two-hour set progressed, audience members of all ages drifted out of their seats and along the walls of the concert hall.

No matter what your background or age, when something moves you, you stand up. It's something Havens has understood since he decided to take up the guitar, and it's what he left his audience with Sunday.


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