Richie Havens at Mass MoCA

A Winter Lion on a Summer's Eve

By: - Jul 03, 2010

Havens Havens Havens

Regal in his purple-striped tunic, longish gray beard and chiseled mahogany head, Richie Havens held court outdoors last night at Mass MoCA.  It was an evening wrapped in nostalgia, as Havens played to a crowd with a memory that stretches over four decades and more.  Opening with Dylan's classic "All Along the Watchtower," he strummed the chords familiar to his generation with a practiced and unfaltering hand, while pigeons hovered like angels of industrial chic under the trestles of MoCA’s footbridges.

Havens can hardly be mentioned without reference to Woodstock, where he held the fort for some three hours as opening act to the bigger reputations of 1969, who were late in arriving for the festival. His status as folk icon is secure, but it is his stamina as a performer with a consistent and enduring message that has earned him a following perhaps too mellow to call a cult, but no less loyal.

That message rings forever in Richie’s music.  It was less evident in last night’s rather convoluted monologues, however.

Once a great and energetic storyteller, the sixty-nine year old got lost repeatedly in recollections of stick ball on the streets of Brooklyn, Superman on television, and other random fragments of speech that failed to shed any light on the paths his mind was treading from one song to another.  An often perplexed, if forgiving, crowd seemed relieved when he and his accompanist, Walter Parks (whom Havens never mentioned, whose presence he never acknowledged) negotiated their way back to coherence in the language of music.

Richie Havens’ artistry has mellowed but not lost much of its power and none, really, of its sweetness.  His rhythms drive like a locomotive through the mists and downpours of yesteryear, spanning a generation and, as it were, a continent, undergirded all the while with a steady and persistent optimism.  A self-contained charm overlays his performance, at times, with a beautiful heartache that can seem more universal than interpersonal. One is carried along on a sweeping ride across decades, looking out, catching glimpses of a history that passes by like meaningful scenery behind a speeding windowpane.  What is no longer certain is that the power of his voice carries anything more than a long lost, lonesome tune.

It is not, of course, that history recedes from us.  We move on.  Our concerns are no longer with an abstraction like “ecology” (something Richie Havens used to shout about) but with a perishing, oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico, retaliatory wars provoked by terrorists and fought in our name by willing mercenaries and militias rather than draftees, a failing economy rather than a post-World War boom capable of supporting a turned-on and tuned-in revolution of drop-outs.  Havens’ affable insistence that we have always known one another, that we share a spiritual affinity, do nothing any longer to reassure us that our human connectedness is worth more than a wistful longing for a decade of long-ago warmongering that inspired greater righteous indignation than we quite seem capable of mustering.  Richie Havens can still throw a kick high in the air.  It just doesn’t land in anyone’s butt any longer.

Parks’ bluesy jazz-picking supported Richie unfailingly, lending grace to to an aging dignity.  There is no faulting either man’s music nor the melding of acoustic and electric voices to produce an engaging dialogue of string with string.  It was Parks’ stone-faced deadpan behind Richie’s rambling, sardonic punchline about “truth, justice and the American way” that underscored the utter disconnect between a mindset that, in retrospect, seems tempered more by the self-involvement of days gone by than by self-reflection.

Regal as a lion in winter last summer evening, Richie Havens’ voice rang clear and strong.  He’s earned his place among great names, but his message fell confused on ears too hard of hearing.  We almost all of us stayed on, not to appear too disrespectul, but the pigeons flew, confused, to find another icon somewheres else.