Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richie Havens: Stonehenge

Richie Havens is one of my favorite folk singers ever, thanks to his gruff, straining voice - a voice that sounds like it's been used, by God, and used hard. He also write magnificent lyrics, when he's not covering others' excellent compositions.

Richie came to fame with his performance at Woodstock, but made a splash on the Greenwich Village coffee shop circuit 5 years earlier, where his one-man performances got the hipsters on their feet. He labored in obscurity for a while, and then came Woodstock, and the album "Mixed Bag", which featured "Handsome Johnny," the standout performance from that show. ("Mixed Bag" had actually been released two years prior, in 1967, and his record company hastily re-did the artwork to reflect the presence of "Handsome Johnny" - versions without that banner on the cover can be hard to find.)

After that, Havens was on the move. He became popular - popular enough, in fact, to get MGM, the parent company of his record label, Verve, to give him his own imprint - the Stormy Forest label. His album "Alarm Clock", issued in 1971, featured his acoustic cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun," which went on to be a Top 40 hit. That record also contains the signature track "Younger Men Grow Older," which is a concert staple to this day.

"Stonehenge", issued in 1970, continues to be one of my favorite Havens Lps, due in large part to the standout "Minstrel From Gault", a not-so-thinly disguised Viet Nam protest song, but one that - unlike others of the genre - wears its age well. In it, Havens talks about the constancy of war through the ages, wrapping his raspy voice inside a gorgeous cocoon of instrumentation that swirls and shifts around the listener, building to a climax that sends shivers down your spine. (At least, it does mine.)

That's not to say the rest of the record is chicken feed. There's a standout cover of the Bee Gees' "I Started A Joke" that nearly eclipses their original, a fantastic cover of Dylan's "Baby Blue", and "Open Our Eyes", the closest thing to a prayer on any Havens Lp. Only the disc-closer, the 8-minute "Shouldn't All The World Be Dancing", a pastiche of song and found sound, laced with bits of moralizing conversation, belies its hippie-era roots. Overall, it's a stellar set - well worth the listen for even a casual fan.

Oh, and the sound quality is fantastic for a recording of this age - it was recorded not to audio tape, but to 35mm magnetic film in the RKO General movie sound stage in New York city. True high fidelity, and clearly audible.

If you're wondering where to start with Richie Havens, pick up the excellent Ryko "Best Of" compilation from 1999. But if you're ready to dig deeper, start here. You'll be rewarded richly.

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