When it comes to "check-off concerts" -- that is, concerts that let hard-core music lovers check off a name on their "Legends I Want to See Live" list -- I've had pretty good luck: Clapton and Pink Floyd were phenomenal, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett were damn good, and Johnny Winter & James Cotton both fought through infirmities to deliver for a recent audience in at The Egg in Albany. My luck ran out on 4th of July weekend, when I saw Richie Havens at MASS MoCA.
Havens turned 70 this past January, and he's got a career that dates back to when folk music was as hip as it got. When Havens got around to playing during his 80-minute set at MASS MoCA, you could watch him sitting on the tall stool at center stage, and your mind's eye could see him assuming the same performance posture at long-gone Greenwich Village night clubs, or on a stage at the bottom of a hill in Bethel, NY. ("These stools, there's one that works all over the world," he explained at one point. "If they don't stock 'em, you can't get 'em.")
The standing-room-or-nothing crowd was on its feet before Havens and lead guitarist Walter Parks had even taken their places. Havens grinned from inside his long grey beard, emanating peace and cool. As he tuned up, he told us that we all had to "live in the world you can make," and "There's some interesting things going on…" he smiled again, looking beyond the crowd. "Like those trees!" Although the guitar was now tuned, Havens continued to talk about his days in Greenwich Village, where there was "a 'nice' climate… That meant that everything was okay…"
When Havens eventually kicked things off with Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," that's when the sparks flew. Havens plays rhythm guitar and nothing but rhythm guitar, and that's very much okay. It's an acoustic freight train that makes you wonder what Bo Diddley would have been like as a folkie, and it'll make your head nod as sure as the fattest bass line you can find. Havens' riffs pushed "Maggie's Farm" and "Here Comes the Sun" like a v8 engine pushes a Camaro down a highway, and they even morphed Gary Wright's pop classic "Love is Alive" into something much bigger than the original recording. Parks added texture and excitement to every song, playing ringing lead lines that echoed Bill Frisell's Americana period.
While Havens still has remnants of the roar that set the tone for the one true Woodstock, remnants are all they are. There was also the sense that his prolonged tuning and chording between songs meant he was "searching" for what tune to play next. That's not a major crime -- the Dead did it for years -- and Parks filled and comped during the tuning, in case a song actually broke out. But the key problem was getting Havens to actually play, because he seemed much less interested in playing than he did in talking… and I mean a LOT of talking!
Okay, some of it was kind of funny. "My generation is a very special generation," he declared, right on the edge of pomposity, before dropping the other shoe: "We're the best-looking generation!" When a father walked his son past the stage before the encore "3:10 to Yuma", Havens told the kid, "Hey… we need you!" Then he whispered, "…to take care of us!" Mind you, these were focused moments. The real problems came during the unfocused moments, when the only person even remotely following Havens' tangents was Havens himself. A rambling rap where he used stickball and (without any discernible transition) the introduction to the Superman television show as a metaphor for why "We are all one" left people shifting in their seats -- the way folks do when Granddad starts going on at Thanksgiving dinner.
"Where's he going?" a woman sitting in front of me asked at one point.
"I don't know," I answered. "But I hope he comes back eventually."
Havens did come back, finishing the regular set with "Freedom" and punctuating the last chord with a high scissor kick. That brought another standing ovation, which lead Havens to start speaking earnestly to one section of the audience… without a microphone, and completely oblivious to the fact that he didn't have one. It was time to go, so I did, putting a check-mark on my own mental list and taking heart in the fact that there are still people who will sell out venues to hear Richie Havens -- whether he's got a microphone or not.