It's been 38 years since Richie Havens opened the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, with a rousing three hour set of songs about love, protest, and, of course, freedom. He sang many of those songs last night at Celebrate Brooklyn, accompanied by guitarist Walter Parks and cellist Stephanie Winters. Havens - a native of Bed-Stuy - claims he has been booked for gigs every weekend for the past 30 years, and plays with the same fire and urgency he always has, snapping no less than three picks and four strings on two separate guitars. (He broke a string right at the start of "Here Comes the Sun," and impressively played through it on only five strings.)
Havens has always been a masterful interpreter of others' songs, and his set included rousing versions of "All Along the Watchtower," "My Love is Alive," "Blood on the Wire," and "Woodstock." During "Grace of the Sun", I looked up at the fast moving melon clouds, and felt like I was riding to heaven. And during "Freedom" - the song he improvised off the spiritual "Motherless Child" to close out his Woodstock set - there was such a charge in the air, I could feel my neck vibrating.
Havens closed out with a defiant rendition of Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance": a powerful protest song about the folly of war, lended added resonance by the news that another six American soldiers died yesterday in Iraq:
There are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire
There's a shadow on the faces
Of the men who fan the flames
Of the wars that are fought in places
Where we can't even say the names
As he left, Havens reminded us that the flame of the 60's, though dim, is still very much alive. "What we had," he said, "you now have. And now, you need to share it."
Philip Miller's cantata REwind was about a whole other brand of political injustice: the 50 year reign of Apartheid in South Africa. The 80 minute piece, which employs a mix of live chorus, strings, and taped testimony from 1995's Truth and Reconciliation commission, received its' North American premiere last night, in a riveting performance conducted by Brad Wells.
Images were projected on a scrim in front of the choir, along with scrolls of the libretto, in the most ingenious manifestation of supertitles I've ever seen. The testimony heard was at turns moving, humorous, defiant, and devastating. A policeman is heard describing in intimate detail the technique of asphyxiating a suspect with a wet cloth bag. The victim of a letter bomb attack says the pain he experienced "was more than he thought a human being could possibly feel," and yet says he would "love to meet and forgive" his attacker. Former President P.W. Botha is heard shouting "Who's laughing?" when he insists Apartheid is another name for "Good Neighbourliness." A mother speaks haltingly about the death of her son, who had just come home on a break from work and left a half glass of milk and the crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich on the counter.
The music was mostly minimalist, sounding at times like Steve Reich's work with tape and video, while at other points it resembled Philip Glass' film scores, or even Prokofiev's music for the 1920's film Alexander Nevsky. But, during the extraordinary second movement, Miller achieves an almost seamless fusion of Western and African music, with baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa singing in Zulu and bouncing around the stage while the chorus echoes his words.
Other soloists included the young tenor Arthur Swan, soprano Nokrismesi Skota and veteran mezzo-soprano Singile Khumalo, whose voicing of a victim's mother's moans was mournful and difficult to listen to.
After the cantata ended and the composer and director came out to receive their standing ovation, Mvinjelwa grabbed the microphone and spontaneoulsly launched back into the Zulu song, while the other soloisists clapped and danced in accompaniment. Thinking fast, Wells remounted the podium and got the chorus and strings to join in for the full performance. The chorus shouted and raised their fists in defiance while the entire audience clapped along. It was one of the most elecrtic moments I've ever experienced at a live performance; certainly the only time I've seen a soloist initiate an encore. Appropriately, the crowd went absolutely bonkers afterwards. I am not aware of any future performances of REwind, but I would expect to hear from Miller again before very long.