November 22, 2007

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New era in music, again
Richie Havens sees another market correction in music
By Alec O’Meara aomeara@hippopress.com

Drawing from an easy confidence that comes from a career spanning five decades, folk legend Richie Havens is a true believer in the cyclical nature of the music business, and he’ll be out to prove it at the Tupelo Music Hall on Saturday. Dec. 1.

Havens talks of an era where feel-good pop music appeared to have a stranglehold on the industry at large, but an undercurrent of grass-roots, message-driven music combined with anti-war feelings and new forms of media to turn the business on its ear. Here’s the kicker: Havens, who will forever have his own page in the history book as the lead-off act at Woodsotck in 1969, was talking about two eras. The sea change from the late 1950s leading all the way up to that famous concert was the first era. The second one is today.

“It [music with meaning] is never going to get lost, it’s just waiting for the next generation to catch up with it again,” Havens said. “It seems like every decade has to go through its bubblegum phase.”

With a sharp understanding of music history, Havens can draw lines from the past directly to the present. He looks at Motown records, with its self-contained network of artists promoting one another and building on each other’s successes, and sees the same thing happening in hip-hop today. He looks at how FM radio arrived at exactly the right time to give folk musicians such as himself a means to circumvent the establishment, sees what satellite radio represents, and understands. So, when someone of Haven’s stature says something as specific as “in six to eight months, you’re going to see it happen,” it’s worth writing down.

“It’s everywhere,” said Havens, who says he has seen, through touring several talented bands that are gathering support in their hometowns. “It’s all just localized right now. A lot of these people are still living and playing in the towns they grew up in. Once they make enough money through selling their own CDs and they can hit the road, it’s going to happen.”

Havens was part of the generation that permanently broke the mold, and he doesn’t believe the world will ever go all the way back to the way it was. However, he’s seen the ebb and flow of pop music since, and even when the “bubblegum” starts to resurface, the maturing of listeners assures that the industry will correct itself every time. Through it all, Havens remains hopeful that the ideals his generation preached have taken root even more firmly in today’s youth.

“These kids are going to be the ones to actually make things different.” he said. “You can see it.”

These days, Havens tours regularly,and calls the experience of playing live an organic one, with the audience driving the show as much as he is. When Havens takes the stage, he only has his first song and his last song in his mind, and lets the audience take him wherever he’s going to go.

“Once I send out the first song, I call it breathing,” Havens said. “I come on stage and the audience applauds and that is them exhaling for the first time. Then I take that energy and inhale that and I begin to play my first song, and that’s me exhaling for the first time, and they take it in. Then they exhale by applauding and I inhale that energy and we decide together what I’m going to play next.”

Performing is only part of the experience for Havens, who takes pride in walking out the front door of an establishment he plays. Meeting with fans, talking about music and signing autographs is, for him, “the second half of the show.”

His ability to connect with different generations of fans comes in handy then, too. Haven recalled a recent concert in Massachusetts where he bumped into a father and son in the bathroom. The dad, a fan since the sixties, was extremely excited and tried to explain to his nine-year-old son who Havens was and why he was his favorite artist. The kid didn’t get it, said Havens, who decided to have some fun with the situation.

“I looked at the kid and said, ‘You know who my favorite band is? Rage Against the Machine.’”

Just like that, the son was the excited one and the father was confused and left out.

“The kid was so hip and I felt it,” he said. “And he lost his mind, when I said that, and the dad was like, who’s that? I said to the kid, ‘See, he don’t know what you and I know.’”

The more things change, the more they stay the same..