Backstage: Richie Havens' Chompers and Five More Folk Legends

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs.This week, a look back at some timeless troubadours.

Last week marked Richie Havens' 70th birthday. So what, you say? The significance lies in the fact that folk music's finest generation is rapidly segueing into the realms of old age. Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell are all icons well into their 60s, creating a new identity for what was once a '60s generation of another sort. With the advent of the so-called "nu-folk," "psych-folk," "acid-folk," and others of that ilk reverting to the hippie ethos of some 40 years ago, the artists who took traditional music into popular realms have given ground to those who are essentially riding their coattails.

A new book, The Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk, illustrates this progression from folk's traditional template to the modern sound that's become synonymous with a lo-fi, low-lit, shoegazing sound, and, if you'll forgive the plug, it's well worth reading. I'm grateful that I saw many of the older generation of folk

musicians when they were still in their prime, well before they were

forced to cede the spotlight.

As far as I can remember, my very first concert was by the singing trio at the forefront of the folk movement, Peter, Paul and Mary. It was prior to the arrival of the Beatles, before I became indoctrinated by rock 'n' roll. From what I recall, their anthems of peace and brotherhood proved as moving as any stadium sellout. 

Likewise, I also had the opportunity to see Eric Anderson, another member of the original Greenwich Village enclave and whose early '70s album Blue River remains one of the loveliest examples of folk music's merge of pop, roots, and country. The venue where he played was on the outskirts of the University of Miami campus and was known as the Flick -- more a coffeehouse than a club and the perfect place for a performer armed with only an acoustic guitar to break down the barriers between artist and audience. If you've never heard the album Blue River, check it out. It's a folk music masterpiece that still stands up nearly 40 years on. 

I first saw Bob Dylan in 1973 on his reunion tour with the Band. However, it was that show, at the old Sportatorium -- a hulking shell of a pit in Hollywood -- that still ranks as the best Dylan show I've ever seen. No doubt it had to do with the fact that he was bolstered by Band material as well as a new studio album performed in tandem, Planet Waves. The Dylan concerts I've seen since have mostly been rambling, disjointed affairs that found him reticent to communicate with his audiences and performing songs in such a way that they were all but unintelligible. Give me the definitive Dylan anytime. 

I saw Joni Mitchell only once -- not in her sheepish minstrel days but rather in concert with Tom Scott and his big band, the L.A. Express at Miami's Jai Alai Fronton. The musicians were touring in support of Mitchell's landmark album Court and Spark, and their union would later be celebrated on the live double album Miles of Aisles. While many claim that Mitchell's music was best served by a simple setup of only vocals and acoustic guitar, I can attest to the fact that with a jazz band in tow, she never sounded better.

I finally saw Joni's pal James Taylor in the late '80s when he played the now-defunct Sunrise Music Theater in Broward. What I remember most was his droll sense of humor. Or I should say, his slyness? His expressions said it all. He'd react to a comment with a look of bemusement, mugging impishly like someone wanting to crack you up without uttering a word. It was a self-effacing ploy, as if he were eager to make light of the whole notion of himself as a serious performer.

And that brings me back to my original inspiration for this column, Mr. Havens himself. I caught him in the early '70s, at the Jai Alai Fronton, and interviewed him after the show. The set consisted of Richie alone on stage with that strident strum of his, reprising many of the songs that made him such a hit at Woodstock -- "Motherless Child," Handsome Johnny," "Just Like a Woman," and the like -- but when I met him backstage, I was in for a shock. I didn't realize that he wore dentures, which he removed during the show to enhance his singing, that raspy wail of a vocal that was part of his stock and trade. Apparently, he had opted to leave them out during our chat, and as he started speaking, I found myself staring at his toothless grin. Realizing his oversight, he slipped them back in as I watched and then nonchalantly resumed the conversation. 

"Chew on that," I told myself.

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