Been doing far, far too many of these lately.
Richie Havens was a singer and a guitarist, a much better singer than most guitarists and a much better guitarist than most singers. His propulsive, ultra-percussive, heavily syncopated approach to guitar playing is instantly recognisable once you’ve heard it, and his voice just ached with passion and sincerity. Listening to him sing today, his lack of pretence, his lack of a front, brings you up short. Richie Havens was just himself; he wasn’t playing at being anything or anyone else. Although he strikes me as the kind of man who was probably not big on judging others, it serves as something of a rebuke to a generation of singers who are either unwilling to commit to any genuine emotion or can only emote in primary colours.
His guitar playing – in which his acoustic guitar was usually open-tuned, and held at such an angle that he could fret bar chords with his thumb over the top of the neck – came from the same folk-jazz school as that of Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, but even more than those guys he turned the seemingly mundane act of strumming with a pick into an art form. Watching the footage of his set at Woodstock reminds us once again of how intricate his guitar playing was, how free he was within the beat. For those of us who maybe haven’t given enough thought to our strumming technique (and I count myself amongst them), watching him play is inspiring, if a little intimidating.
Farewell to another one-off.
Richie Havens. Note the left-hand thumb