Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Richie Havens feels we're at the dawn of major change

Talking politics with the folk-rock icon before his show in Floyd.


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Richie Havens

Folk-rock icons don't come any more authentic than Richie Havens.

Allen Ginsberg himself encouraged a young Havens to get up and read his poetry at a Greenwich Village coffee shop in the early 1960s. Before long, the doo-wop bandleader turned beat poet was learning how to play guitar because he wanted to accompany himself singing the great songs he was hearing around the village -- songs by the likes of Fred Neil and Dino Valente.

By the end of the decade, he had signed with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and he had opened the original Woodstock Festival. His set included repeat encores and an ancient spiritual that, with Havens' repeated improvisation, came to be known as "Freedom/Motherless Child."

His clear, strong voice and his unorthodox guitar style are prominent in the 1960s-era pop culture tapestry.

But he has never really stopped.

Havens, 67, who plays Thursday at The Sun Music Hall in Floyd, is touring behind his 30th album, "Nobody Left to Crown." The new disc features seven new Havens tunes, including "The Key," "(Can't You Hear) Zeus's Anger Roar" and the title cut. Havens, known as a great interpreter, also covers such rock classics as The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and Jackson Brown's "Lives in the Balance."

Those covers reflect Haven's feelings about the national and world situation over the past few years, but he says he never lost hope. Well before the 2008 presidential election, he was quoted in his online biography saying: "We are at the ."

What happened on Nov. 4, "well, it's proved me right," Havens said with a laugh.

In a phone interview, Havens said he has felt that president-elect Barack Obama would wind up in the Oval Office ever since his now-famous 2004 Democratic convention keynote address, when "no one knew who he was."

"It was probably the best speech ever made, seriously, in the last 20 years," Haven said. "I felt it, you know. The most interesting thing is that there were other people who felt it as well."

Havens then took a trip in the space-time-Internet continuum, referencing Robert F. Kennedy's prediction that a black person could become president within 40 years. He was essentially correct, though according to snopes.com, Kennedy broadcast the Voice of America address in 1961, when he was attorney general, and not 1968, as urban legend has held recently.

Still, to hear Havens discuss it, precise details don't seem necessary to make the point. Instead, what matters is the idea of such words getting into people's ears and heads, taking root and leading to action, he said.

Havens still meets people who were around and conscious in the 1960s. He said of some of those encounters: "They come up and say, 'You know, I loved it back then. I don't know. What did we do? Did we do anything?'

"And I say 'Of course. ... How about a woman and an African-American running for president?' "

It wouldn't have been possible today had people not been exposed to the possibilities of change, of "that visual energy that really says: You know, this could possibly be so," Havens said.

In addition to politics, Havens discussed what it was like to be a young artist, poet and budding musician in 1960-era Greenwich Village.

He also talked about the guest artists on "No One Left to Crown," including guitarist Derek Trucks, who recorded slide guitar on the Jackson Brown-written "Lives in the Balance." And he had great things to say about guitarist Walter Parks and cellist Stephanie Winters, who will be onstage with him at the Sun.

Go to this story at roanoke.com/entertainment to hear audio from the interview with Havens.