April 2008

Richie Havens
with Erika Werry opening
April 22, 2008 Hugh's Room Toronto
Report by Sebastian Cook
There are certain artists who epitomize their genre. Singing songs whose lyrics are so often a call to peaceful arms, speaking to the burning anger of injustice — yet with such a beautiful rhythm and grace and personal warmth — the great Richie Havens is such an artist in the context of folk music. And so it was that Havens held court at a sold-out Hugh’s Room. The crowd was an intriguing mix of people from the Baby Boomer generation he electrified so long ago and their literal and figurative children; all of us together living in a time that so calls out for music to stoke the fires of enlightened protest.

Captivated by the honour of opening for the legend was local singer-songwriter Erika Werry, creator of 2004’s acclaimed “Nothing Clearer Comes” and the more recent “Time On Our Hands”. Her short set revealed a worldly troubadour from whom Canadian folk and indie audiences will be hearing much more, her richly textured voice telling engaging stories over sparse rhythmic guitar. Particularly impressive were: “Slow Dancing on the Past”, “Sliding”, a haunting tale about relationships written in Vancouver; “Cadillac, Saskatchewan” which told the story of connecting with a relative in Cadillac, Saskatchewan; and “Blue In Green”; a folk take on the legendary Bill Evans/Miles Davis song. After her set, she was on her way down Roncesvalles to the Local for a show with her full band, which on any other night would have been a likely next destination.

After a short break, Havens took the stage, accompanied by electric guitarist Walter Parks. “How’s fantastic? Fantastic is a good place to be when we have to do something,” he said riffing on the crowd’s response to his obligatory “Howyoudoin’?” And so, the stream of utter consciousness began. “My generation is a special generation,” he continued, seguing into stories from the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village that are one of the most enduring collective memories from the awakening times of those late 1960s. Now 67, he could not help but savour the irony of his youngest listeners requesting his oldest songs.

Yet as he frenetically sang and strummed “All Along the Watchtower” it was obvious immediately that Havens is as vital and powerful as ever as a performer, although I found the electric accompaniment to be slightly disjointed in its tempo and tone at first. This was the first of many essential folk anthems, and it conveyed a message that he views this music as being owned collectively — by the musicians and the many people who enjoy it. Havens is nothing if not a paradox, an absolute lyrical firebrand yet so gracefully welcoming.

“Please excuse the tuning,” he asked during one of many extended breaks to tune with Parks. “It’s due to relativity. I have two ears, and they both hear something different.” Once again, this gentle banter gave way to a pounding call to arms against the “scoundrel called “Way Down Deep” that once again called upon us to summon our strength against the “scoundrels” who rule our world. It was pause for thought as to why the idea of a true counterculture amongst my generation, in a time with so many historical parallels to my parents’ coming-of-age time, seems not to have truly taken root as it did back then.

An hysterically funny recollection of his reaction to the news that Pluto is not a planet led into “Handouts in the Rain”, a story about kindness with one line, “We kill him until he dies”, which encapsulates society’s treatment of so many homeless people. Cellist Stephanie Winters made her entrance on “Blood on the Wire”, which featured a rapid-fire spoken-word cadence over dobro-like guitar. We now had the Sage and his two young protégés, in the spirit of the oral storytelling traditions that seem destined to be lost. “Say it isn’t so / that the world must choose again / who is foe / and who is friend”, he sang.

The stream of consciousness continued to flow: a tale of playing stickball growing up in Brooklyn inspiring his mother’s wrath (“If your mother doesn’t believe you, no one will…”) and explaining his admiration for Superman as being driven by the fact that he “did what the cops couldn’t do”. It all came so subtly full circle with “Truth, justice AND the American way?” that had the audience in an uproar at the thought of how the double entendre in those immortal words is so amazingly ironic. The song that followed, “Just Between Me and You”, sums up the essence of a Richie Havens show — sharing big ideas and dreams that somehow retain a sense of intimacy.

Havens brought the show home with a medley of essential anthems: “Maggie’s Farm”, “Woodstock”, “Standing on the Water” and finally, “Freedom”, the quintessential Havens song which ended with a thunderous roar from the crowd and Havens rising to kick the air well above his head. Has it really been almost 40 years since his rendition at Woodstock, one of the most famous live performances of all-time? Encores were “Here Comes the Sun” and “I Am The Water”. And so it was that the sun set on the show and this legendary man flowed on, at once a gentle testament to the past of least resistance on a human level and the struggle of a generation for whom his music remains a clarion call.

The musicians
Richie Havens – acoustic guitar, vocals
Walter Parks – electric guitar
Stephanie Winters – cello


We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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