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UPDATED: Woodstock legend Richie Havens plays Palmdale Playhouse

Posted: January 21, 2009 4:37 p.m.
Updated: January 24, 2009 1:06 p.m.

PHOTO UPDATE: Richie Havens: portrait of a legend, Palmdale, Calif., Jan. 24, 2009, three days after his 67th birthday.

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Nearly 40 years after his breakthrough appearance as the opening act at the August 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, soulful folk-rock legend Richie Havens heads west this weekend for dates including an 8 p.m. performance Saturday night at the intimate 343-seat Palmdale Playhouse.

The singer/guitarist/songwriter's sets feature songs from his 30th and latest album, "Nobody Left to Crown," (Verve/Forecast), including originals such as the poignant opener "The Key" and the politically pointed title track, plus blazing interpretations of Pete Townshend/The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance" (longtime friend Derek Trucks contributes slide guitar to the album version of the last-mentioned song).

Havens' sets also weave in other classics spanning his nearly five-decade career, usually among them his "Freedom/Motherless Child" Woodstock medley and the anti-war "Handsome Johnny" (co-written with Lou Gossett Jr.), plus other surprises.

"I only know the first and last songs to sing when I go onstage," Havens said. "Since the beginning, it's always been that way."

Son of a woman of West Indian heritage and an American Indian, Havens was born 67 years ago Jan. 21, and raised in Brooklyn's rough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He formed a streetcorner doo-wop group and was a member of a gospel group by his mid-teens, then hit nearby Greenwich Village as a visual artist in 1961.

After a couple years, he picked up a guitar and soon emerged as one of the folk era's most recognizeable talents, an outspoken advocate of civil rights, and an opponent of the war in Vietnam.

Havens' third album, 1967's "Mixed Bag" (Verve), was the first to earn an audience outside the Village. His appearance at Woodstock and in director Michael Wadleigh's "Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music" 1970 film documentary made him an international figure.

At Woodstock, Havens was fifth on the bill. But due to equipment and set-up delays for the first four performers, and because Havens, his band and equipment were already backstage, festival producer Michael Lang - an old friend - and his crew begged Havens to go on first and get the festival off the ground. It was already afternoon.

"I said, ‘Are you kidding?'" Havens said. "The festival was late - there should have been music starting at 5:30 that morning. They said, ‘No, it's OK, please go on.' I went, ‘Oh, no!' and disappeared for a while. When I came back, they went, ‘We weren't kidding - please!'

"I was like, ‘Look, Michael, if they throw anything at me, you're gonna owe me. I'm saving you, you know that, don't you?'

"We did go on for our 40 minutes, then turned around and walked off," Havens said.

"They said, ‘Richie, four more?' ‘OK, four more songs,' I said, and went back on. Well, they did that six times until I didn't have a song left to sing. I sang every song I knew, that I could play."

Recorded in 2007, his latest version of "Nobody Left to Crown," a scathing but not humorless indictment of government hypocracy, is an update of a Havens original that first appeared a decade earlier on his "Mirage" album (A&M).

"The system it needs a bit of correction right now," he sings in one of the key lines.

"The song came back again because the same crap was happening," Havens said.

Though not as hard-edged as The Who's "Who's Next" version, Havens' take on "Won't Get Fooled Again" reflects his rock ‘n' roll side.

"I did it onstage a few times (years ago) and people really got into it," he said, adding it didn't become an "every-day song" until more recently.

Havens recorded "Won't Get Fooled Again" for his latest album, along with the "Nobody Left to Crown" remake and "Lives in the Balance," another song he's performed live for some time but not on record, because "they fit" together.

"Those three songs are like a triangle in this set," he said.

Speaking triangularly, Havens' latest album follows 2002's "Wishing Well" (Import) and 2004's "Grace of the Sun" (Stormy Forest) and he thinks of them almost as a three-record set.

"They are tied together so much musically and instrumentally," he said, and include "a bunch" of recent compositions.

Havens said he usually writes on the fly these days. Literally. He often starts with just a title.

"I sit in the airplane and write the song, and by the time I get off I've already learned it," he said. "I didn't have to sing it. I heard someone singing the melody to me and I wrote it down."

Havens warmly greets and gratefully channels his mysterious muse whenever it visits.

"I get out of my own way to let things happen," he said. "When the song starts to play (in my head), I just close my eyes and fade right in, getting out of the way so the song can be heard from the ‘gift.'"

As for many Americans, especially African-Americans, Barack Obama's inauguration this week was a dream realized for Havens, who Saturday night will play his first gig with a black man in the White House.

"I was doing a show at a college in the Midwest when Bobby Kennedy was running for president," Havens said, flashing back for a moment four decades to 1968.

"(Kennedy) actually said, ‘And I say this with all my heart, that I believe within 40 years, we can have an African-American president.' So I have that to walk with. It stuck in my brain."

Today, Havens' songwriting strength, vocal power, percussive guitar-playing and passion for performing remain undiminished. Still based in New York City, he has ventured out to play a few gigs every weekend year-round for the past 29 years.

"The only exercise I do is stretch, and I eat once a day if I can remember to," he said. "Then I go outside and run backward as fast as I can. It rewinds the clock, you know?"

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