Richie Havens Mixes Past and Present at the Admiral

Richie Havens said last week that the songs just kind of "go through" him.

As his concert Nov. 15 at the Admiral Theatre proved, that’s both a good and a bad thing. The show, for the most part, had a fine, off-the-cuff feel to it, as if the venerable folkie really was just channeling the songs.

It didn’t seem, though, like he was quite channeling all the lyrics all the time.

There’s no downplaying Havens’ voice as a force of nature. Hearing him sing live is like holding a baby … very comforting, but with a little bit of underlying tension — you can’t help wondering what the baby’s about to do.

And, on stage, Havens was the soul of affability, even absent-mindedness. But after a cross-country trip to play one show, a 67-year-old can be forgiven a shred of dottiness.

The show itself, with Havens and guitarist Walter Parks on duty throughout and joined for the final song of the first set and all of the second by cellist Stephanie Winters , was an uneven affair, really. Much time was spent tuning, particularly in the oddly paced first set, and when Havens would launch into a song with his trademark, doubletime strum, Parks sometimes seemed left with nothing to do but noodle little arpeggios (many of them quite lovely, by the way) around the edges. The tone of Winters’ cello, when you could hear it, was a gorgeous addition.

The good news is that Havens played a lot of the songs from his excellent latest CD, "Nobody Left to Crown ." The title tune was a highlight of the opening set, along with a much-anticipated reading of George Harrison’s "Here Comes the Sun ," and the lovely "One More Day " was a centerpiece of the second.

(If it seemed like there was a lot of guitar tuning going on, go home, grab your own axe and hammer away on it for 10 minutes like Havens does. Guaranteed you’ll have to re-tune it.)

The rouser, though, was the sequence near the end of the set, which started with a gripping version of Joni Mitchell’s "Woodstock" (which suffered just a tad, however, as he seemed to struggle with the lyrics) and continued through an impassioned reading of Bob Dylan’s "Maggie’s Farm ," with a verse of Pete Townsend’s "Won’t Get Fooled Again " effectively folded in. (There’s a really good, full-length re-imagining of "Won’t Get Fooled Again" on "Nobody Left to Crown," by the way.)

After that, even Havens’ great Woodstock amalgam, "Freedom / Motherless Child ," for all its string-breaking passion, seemed, well, perfunctory. He probably knew there were patrons who would block the exits until he played it.

Not all the oldies worked as well. The rendition of Gary Wright’s "Love Is Alive ," which started off the second set, seemed to meander awkwardly, and the encore — one a cappella verse of the Joe Cocker chestnut "You Are So Beautiful " (actually written by the late Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher), was too brief, although you could definitely make out little bitty snippets of Havens’ gospel and doo-wop beginnings in his treatment.

Overall, I have to say that while normally I’m a fan of spontaneity, this concert might have been a little too loose. Still, I’m not disappointed. Havens, after more than 40 years on stage, is still one hell of a channeler of songs.

More later … — MM

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