I first saw Richie Havens on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I loved him then. Open tuning, fretted with his thumb, cool. I tried it. My guitar didn't like being tuned to an open E, and my thumb hurt like crazy! Besides my voice isn't as rich as his...so it didn't sound the same anyway, and just how did he play minor chords? I bought a copy of his first album in NYC on a trip there with Lester Bilbo. Same trip where we saw Performance and discovered Ry Cooder.
Then Richie became a star with his featured role at Woodstock (the festival and the film). The next year he played at the Burlington Arena! Lester's mom drove us to the show, and Richie was right there, to talk to. We listened in on a conversation, got an autograph, and then watched the concert. I remember best a long rendition of "Rocky Raccoon" where he left the stage still playing, circum-navigated the arena and found his way back to the stage...well he was not so lively this week at Hugh's Room in Toronto. He's 68 now, and he's slowed down. When we spoke he seemed frail, and tired. His concert this night was only a little over an hour long, and featured at least one long, rambling narration about stickball, Superman, and "truth, justice and 'the American way[?]'" We could've done with another song instead of that. And yet, there we were in the presence of an icon. He still plays a big Guild guitar, tuned to open E, he still frets with his thumb, and goes through a pick in two songs! He is a rhythmic guitarist, doesn't need a drummer (although he used to travel with at least one percussionist). Now it's just Richie and Walter Parks (the lead guitarist) and a bunch of new songs Richie is writing about peace and love and goodness. Sure, he still does a couple of the favourites. "Here Comes the Sun" and "Freedom" but many others have been lost along the way. No "Just Like a Woman" this time, although everyone called for it. His guitar playing has got a bit sloppy, he missed the 5 chord once or twice, and he seemed to get lost with the lyrics of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" but everybody had a good time.
We met Susan, an old friend of Richie's, and she introduced us to him. He was gracious and charming and posed for a photo or two. Again...a wonderful night. And when I got home...the newly released 40th Anniversary edition of Woodstock was waiting for me.