By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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You can easily call Richie Havens a folk singer. He is, after all, an acoustic-guitar-playing Boomer. But you can't call him typical: His distinctive style couldn't be further from the sanctimonious post-Dylan stereotype. Instead, he has continued to propagate the dogged, soulful, street-level folk that made him famous.
Havens first drew the world's attention when he appeared in the 1970 film Woodstock. Backed by guitarist Paul "Deano" Williams and conga player Daniel Ben Zebulon, he delivered a powerful cover of the traditional spiritual "Motherless Child" (his version became better known as "Freedom" because he chanted the word during the song's ad-libbed intro). His tall figure hunched over his guitar, sweat soaking the top of his long orange tunic, Havens played for the half-million-strong crowd as if he were in a fitful trance.
Havens' Woodstock performance cemented his reputation as one of folk's most compelling artists, not to mention his status as a major African-American artist in the hippie subculture. In fact, he terms the appearance "the Great Becoming," acknowledging it truly led to his 40-year, 30-album career on both major labels and independents, including his own Stormy Forest imprint. His original songs — from 1967's war-protesting "Handsome Johnny" to the politician-bashing title track of his most recent album, Nobody Left to Crown — reflect the bluesy gravitas he has also brought to his covers of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Here Comes the Sun."
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Since resurfacing in recent years to a new generation via collaborations with electronic act Groove Armada, the 68-year-old "kid from Brooklyn" has gotten more of his due as an innovator. Nobody Left to Crown finds Havens mellowing his instrumental sound with cello and organ accompaniment. But his lyrical and vocal strength remain steadfast on tracks such as "(Can't You Hear) Zeus's Anger Roar," whose gospel feel reflects his early roots. Havens uses those dynamics to keep a sharpened edge to folk — and to prevent his music from succumbing to the genre's tedious stereotypes.