Some people went to Woodstock in 1969 and the experience changed them. For singer-guitarist Richie Havens, whose performance was one of the most riveting, moving moments of the legendary festival, Woodstock defined his career.
Today, as he did all those years ago, Havens mesmerizes crowds with his charisma and intensity. As his open-tuned guitar rings and chimes, his bold voice instantly takes charge and raises goosebumps on your skin. Eyes closed, bearing down on the strings, Havens has an uncanny knack of instantly getting to the core of a song.
While Woodstock was where the 66-year-old Havens broke it big on the national scene, his roots are in the early ’60s coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, and that smaller, more intimate world is the one he holds closest to his heart. “I came from Brooklyn and sang doo-wop with my friends,” he recalls. “We discovered Greenwich Village when we were 19 or so. I heard a different song when I went there, historical, traditional folk songs that changed my life.”
Havens started out as a fan, not an aspiring player. “I used to sit in the audience and sing with the guys who wrote them. Here’s [singer-songwriter-emcee] Freddie Neil—I’m singing harmony in the audience—he comes over and says, ‘Richie, you’ve been singing my songs for six months. Here, take this guitar and go home and learn them your damn self, and then come back and sing them your damn self.’ So I borrowed his guitar, didn’t know how to tune it, so I tuned it to a chord, and three days later I was back there, singing those songs. Now, that to me was the biggest thing that ever happened.”
Hearing the wave of groundbreaking singer-songwriters, Havens was aware something extraordinary was going on. “Many of them were as unique as you can possibly be. You could hear something [in the Village] you knew you wouldn’t hear outside these 15 blocks. You could walk south on Macdougal Street on one side, and north on the other—because you couldn’t go in the opposite direction on those two sides, you had to go with the flow—and you’d see all these guys running up and down in the gutter. Those were the guys who had to be at their next gig, the second coffeehouse of the night, and we all knew each other in passing: ‘Hey, man, how ya doing? Where ya going?’ I used to do three coffeehouses a night. It was magic. All of these guys were so sophisticated—Dino Valenti, Dave Van Ronk, and Noel Stookey alone (later of Peter, Paul and Mary)—just wonderful. I got to hear Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp, when they were a duo called the Two Bobs.”
Of course, another Bob was also racing down those streets at the same time. In his book Chronicles, Bob Dylan documents those Greenwich Village years with equal awe, and remembers Havens: “One singer I crossed paths with a lot, Richie Havens, always had a nice-looking girl with him who passed the hat and I noticed that he always did well,” Dylan writes. “Sometimes she passed two hats.”
Richie Havens will bring his coffeehouse intimacy and Woodstock vibe to the GE Theatre at Proctors on December 8. Tickets for the 7:30 program, sponsored by the Eighth Step Coffeehouse, are $25. (518) 382-1083; www.proctors.org.