Web Exclusive: Richie Havens and Harry Manx at the Great American Music Hall March 7, 2009

Richie Havens is an American icon best known by most for his acid-fuelled performance opening the Woodstock festival 40 years ago. The idiosyncratic guitarist with the extraordinary voice powered through eight pieces, climaxing with the almost entirely improvised “Freedom,” which ironically became the song he’s most associated with. Throughout the first four decades of his career, Havens gained a reputation for his highly personal interpretations of tunes by artists such as Dylan and the Beatles—he had a hit with “Here Comes the Sun” in 1971—but came into his own as a brilliant songwriter with 2002’s Wishing Well and 2004’s Grace of the Sun, both of which marked a shift to a more contemporary, world music-based approach. (His most recent album, Nobody Left To Crown, returned to more traditional sounds).

Havens’ Saturday night show was sold out, with people packed into every corner of the historic Music Hall. Quite a feat, considering that he also played packed halls in two other Bay Area venues. The 68-year old Havens greeted the audience by saying, “I’m really glad to be here this evening. Actually, I’m really glad to be anywhere.” One of Havens’ most endearing traits is his ability to charm an audience with softly spoken stories, a skill that came in handy when he needed to catch his breath after a particularly energetic performance—and there were a lot of them, including a rousing medley of “Maggie’s Farm”/“Won’t Get Fooled Again.” On the latter, he and accompanist, guitarist Walter Parks, covered the pulsating sequencer section with uncanny skill, and at the end Havens astonished everyone present by leaping high into the air and kicking his foot out like a young Pete Townshend!

With the exception of the opening and closing songs, Havens improvises his set list each night, a practice that keeps Parks, on his toes. Havens will play a brief chord or phrase before launching into the next song, and Parks somehow manages to determine which song from Havens’ extensive repertoire he is calling for, and be playing it nanoseconds later. Parks also has to cover parts originally played on both acoustic and electric guitars, which he does surprisingly well with just a small-bodied Taylor and a pedal or two.

Havens’ entire set was brilliantly and energetically performed, with heart and soul shining through in every song. He played a lot of his more recent material—including “By the Grace of the Sun,” “Way Down Deep,” and covers “All Along the Watchtower” and “Love is Alive”—in addition to obligatory classics such as “Here Comes the Sun” and “Freedom.” His final encore was a haunting version of “Woodstock,” the first few bars of which resulted in a wave of emotion sweeping over the mostly ’60s-era audience.

Opening for Havens was Harry Manx, a Canadian singer/songwriter/guitarist who played guitar on two songs on Havens’ last album, and who has been touring with him for the past few months. Manx has a soulful, smoky voice that sounds a little like a blend of Havens and Bruce Springsteen (his cover of “I’m On Fire” gained the approval of the Boss himself), and his guitar playing deftly blends American roots and Indian slide-guitar stylings. Like Havens, Manx’s set includes covers (“Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues,” “Tijuana,” “Can’t be Satisfied,” etc.) with strong originals, played on acoustic instruments tuned to open-D. But unlike him, Manx plays his guitars largely lap-style, with a slide, including the 20-string Mohan vina designed and built by Indian master guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

After being introduced as a “Canadian,” Manx said, “Yes, I am from Canada. Canadians are like unarmed Americans with health care.” From there, he gradually seduced the audience—most of whom had probably never heard his music before—with increasingly energetic tunes that showcased his amazing slide chops and vocals. Manx spent many years busking on the street as a one-man-band, and it shows in his performances. Playing his various guitars through a high-end signal chain with pristine highs and a huge bottom end to project the bass, and accompanying himself with simulated kick-drum and snare sounds triggered by his feet (and occasionally a harmonica on a neck stand), he typically sounded more like an entire band than a single performer. By the time he had blasted his way through his final number—a kickass version of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied”—the audience was cheering wildly. Havens fans are natural recruits for Manx’s music, and he obviously won over more than a few at the show. —Barry Cleveland

Read GP’s December 2004 feature story on Richie Havens here.

Read GP’s December 2008 feature story on Harry Manx here.