Songs of Freedom

Richie Havens - Janis Ian

Chicago Folk Center

October 27, 2001

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2001, Volume 8, #12

Written by John Metzger

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Richie Havens was a staple of the early '60s Greenwich Village folk scene, but it was his 1969 performance at Woodstock that thrust him into the realm of folk royalty. After a three-hour set to open the festival, Havens returned to the stage and improvised what has become his best known composition Freedom, a powerful song that mutated the old spiritual Motherless Child into a new anti-war anthem.

More than thirty years later, Havens' intensity hasn't lessened one bit, and he can still captivate his audience as evidenced by his stirring performance on October 27 at Chicago's Old Town School. His booming baritone still packs volumes of emotion, and his sets remain peppered with flower power aspirations. Freedom retained all the potency of the original, and a fusion of Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey with Bob Dylan's Just Like a Woman worked beautifully.

Not surprisingly, Havens took a stance against the current bombing campaign in Afghanistan and the Bush Administration's proclamation to fight any country harboring terrorists. He urged his audience to think for itself and to understand that the U.S.A. has terrorists of its own in the right-wing radicals who persecute minorities. He backed up his words with his two most powerful selections of the evening covers of Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance and Pink Floyd's On the Turning Away. On the former, guitarist Frank Annunciata furnished graceful, glistening, Spanish inflections that danced around Havens' hearty rhythm. The latter was performed a cappella and became a spiritual prayer for those who have already lost their lives at home and abroad in yet another unseemly war of man. Innocence has once again been lost, and innocent people will once again be (and have already been) hurt. It's truly a shame that these atrocities continue to happen, and it's a shame that such topical songs remain relevant so many years after being written. Whether one agrees with Havens or not, one must, at least, admire him for remaining true to his convictions when many of his peers sold-out long ago.

Nine-time Grammy Award winner and fellow Greenwich Village graduate Janis Ian opened the show as a self-described melancholic counterpoint to Havens' joyful vibe. Her songs of broken hearts and shattered dreams were ripe with social commentary, and her keen observations have only heightened as the years have progressed. Standing alone on stage, she built her own accompaniments, using a variety of digital effects, delays, and loops to create layers of harmony and to distort both her vocals and the sound of her guitar. From the funky rock groove of God & the FBI to the hilarious spoof of Nashville in Boots Like Emmy Lou's to the delicate beauty of At Seventeen, Ian ran the gamut of what folk music is all about, while embracing technology and remaining true to her artistic vision.

Richie Havens' 20th Century Masters: The Best of Richie Havens is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!

Janis Ian's God & the FBI is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Copyright 2001 The Music Box