Richie Havens, Whelans, Dublin, 26th March 2003
Looking like a cross between Bill Cosby and Moses, Richie Havens strode onstage in Whelans to an appreciative roar from the expectant crowd. A tall, imposing figure of a man - which befits his near-legendary status - he resembled a latter day prophet with his long, grey beard, black kaftan and loose trousers, with a silver medallion tied closely around his neck.
Whelans was packed with people of all ages, from ageing hippie-types who were dedicated fans since Woodstock to students who had probably just discovered this guitar master. Havens seemed almost embarrassed by the warmth of the crowd's reaction and grinned sheepishly as he thanked the audience, waited for their welcoming cheers to eventually subside.
He launched his set with a song that, he claimed, he had refused to play for many years. In the first of many disclosures throughout the night, he began chatting comfortably to the audience. He told of how "a good friend" had heard this, as yet unnamed, song and requested the chords. Having taken a whole week to learn the song, this friend had subsequently recorded it. According to Havens, this version so eclipsed his own that he stopped playing it. In a conspiratorial whisper, he added that he would make an exception for us that night and launched into the song. That friend was Jimi Hendrix and the song was 'All along the watchtower'.
Havens was accompanied by just two guitarists, one on acoustic, the other on electric, both technical virtuosos. Truthfully, no other instruments were needed - the power of the three guitarists and their obvious mastery over their instruments was compelling to watch, especially when they synchronised their playing. Havens himself refuses to amplify his guitar, instead preferring to assemble a microphone close to the soundbox of his guitar to produce an almost percussive sound with every strum of the strings. He uses his thumb like an extra finger on the fret and, in such a small venue as Whelans, this unique method could be appreciated properly.
The sheer energy he poured into his performance was incredible. Bending close over the guitar, twisting his whole torso away, then standing up to give Pete Townshend-like swings, he looked like a man half his age and certainly made his support act Paddy Casey look pretty tame in comparison. Casey himself had been relatively well-received, but his songs were all of the same tempo and he lost the crowd's interest a little until 'Sweet suburban sky' won them back again.
Richie Havens was the focus of the night, however, and he didn't disappoint. In between playing such classic songs as 'High flyin' bird' and 'Handsome Johnny', he comfortably interacted with the crowd like the real pro that he is. He obviously loves to talk, dispensing his views, philosophies and advice from the stage like a genial grandfather. He spoke of the eternal differences between men and women, how we never seem to learn from each other - and how this is just what makes living and loving so worthwhile. He then launched into an amazing fusion of 'Just like a woman' and one of his own compositions.
Left alone on the stage for a slower, solo set, Havens played some new material from his most recent album 'Wishing well'. Songs like 'Handouts in the rain', 'Alone together' and the beautiful 'Paradise' were played to a hushed, reverent crowd and showed that his latest music is as original and evocative as that of his '60s heyday. He revealed his joy at seeing so many young people in the audience and his hope that the children of today will grow up to be informed and peaceful. He wasn't without a sense of humour, however, mocking himself for "trying to compete with today's rock stars" and empathising with the older members of the crowd who remembered Woodstock.
He finished his set with the classic 'Freedom', which he originally improvised onstage at Woodstock back in 1969. This song has lost none its impact since then and rang out through Whelans with a forceful power. Havens played with such intensity and passion that, as he put it afterwards, his plectrum literally "just disintegrated!" As he left the stage to the sounds of the cheering crowd, he gave us one final piece of advice: "We've got just one chance in life, one chance to make it right; our lives are too short for conflict."
He returned to the stage alone and thanked us profusely for our presence before playing a great version of 'Blood on the wire'. Havens is undoubtedly a legendary musician and still produces fantastic music after nearly forty years, but from this show it was clear that he's also a genuinely decent person - his gentle, self-deprecatory manner won the hearts of everybody in the audience. As he finished, he thanked us yet again for turning up. The pleasure was all ours.
Mary Anne Kenny.