Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Woodstock stories: Richie Havens

No performer at Woodstock deserved more thanks from the promoters than Richie Havens.

Consider the scene: It’s Friday afternoon, August 15, and what was expected to be a crowd of perhaps 75,000 has ballooned to 300,000-400,000 people. Routes to the festival are clogged with traffic and that traffic meant performers were stranded in the endless line of vehicles trying to get to the festival. That included Sweetwater, the intended opening act, who could not possibly arrive by the 4:00 p.m. start time.

The promoters, not surprisingly, started considering what solo act they could put on stage—somebody who would not require a long set-up time and did not have a band who might be stuck out with the others in traffic.

Havens, who had no idea that all of this was going on, was back at the local Holiday Inn, hanging with a few other performers and organizers given that his scheduled appearance time was later that evening. He was summoned and quickly hauled out to a waiting helicopter in order to be shuttled over to the festival site.

So, it was Havens who was called upon to open this four-day festival—an affair which was starting late and with an attendance which had grown to astounding numbers. And, it was Havens who delivered—who took the stage in a long flowing caftan and white trousers, barefoot…and with a guitar. No one else was on stage with him—no bass player, no drummer, nobody—just Havens and hundreds of thousands of anxious fans ready to get started.

The original plan was for Havens to play a 20-minute set. He played that set, then another and then another. And he just kept on playing—no sign to come off stage, no signal from the crowd that they were growing bored with his performance. Far from it—they seemed mesmerized by the sight of this single performer. He tried to leave the stage and kept being pushed back. He eventually played so long that two of his band members actually made it on stage with him.

Finally, Havens was at a point where he was running out of material. An artist who performed both original material as well as covers from other artists, Havens looked out at the crowd and said, “Freedom isn’t what they’ve made us even think it is. We already have it. All we have to do is exercise it.” And, he started playing—improvising his song “Freedom” coupled with “Motherless Child.”

It was an electric moment and one that was captured in the movie documentary (clip attached above) about Woodstock—Havens’ hands and fingers flying over his weathered guitar, hunched over, voice impassioned, and the back of his caftan soaked in sweat from the two hour and 45 minute performance. The 20-minute set was now close to three hours long.

Richie Havens—opening act at Woodstock and the performer who perhaps saved the festival.

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