For many, the name Richie Havens is synonymous with the famed 1969 Woodstock Festival. His electrifying performance of “Freedom,” highlighted in the subsequent movie, made him internationally famous and boosted a career that had begun blossoming nearly a decade earlier. But to think of those few minutes on film as the high-water mark of Havens’ life in music would be like saying that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is Bobby McFerrin’s most important song.
Havens opened Woodstock and played for nearly three hours, in part because he had to fill time when other performers were delayed in getting to the site, and partly because the huge audience called him back repeatedly for encores. When he ran out of material, he improvised “Freedom” out of the traditional spiritual, “Motherless Child.” (In this respect, there is a resonance with McFerrin, who also improvised “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” in his case in the studio, and almost didn’t bother to release it.)
Havens seized the opportunity his Woodstock success gave him and followed it with a string of successful recordings and an active international touring schedule, which he maintains to this day. He polished his musical fingerprint: an instantly identifiable voice; an equally inimitable open-tuned, thumb-fretted guitar style; and a gift for sure-handed interpretation. His covers of well-known songs like “Here Comes the Sun,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and many others are often as compelling as the originals, if not more so.
He also branched out into acting on stage, TV, and films, and became one of the early leaders in environmental issues when in the 1970s he helped found the North Wind Undersea Institute, a children’s museum in his native Bronx, dedicated to educating young people about ecology.
Havens was in his twenties at Woodstock, but his unique rough-gruff voice made him sound like a much older man. Today, at nearly seventy, his voice has mellowed a little–paradoxically, he sounds younger now. And, as his warmly received January appearance at this year’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival showed, the wild energy of his guitar strumming has not diminished one bit. He also confirmed he has plenty of kick left when he jumped up and clicked his heels while walking off stage.
Havens’ show at the Ark on July 10 will be his eighth visit to the club. Walter Parks, his main sideman since 2001, will once again accompany him. Parks is a versatile and inventive guitarist, with a sure touch for finding just the right notes and phrases to complement Havens’ sound. Their last two shows at the Ark, in 2005 and 2007, both sold out, so don’t wait too long to get your tickets.