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Havens still offers strong message

At 67, his new album is just out. He finds inspiration in Bob Dylan - and Barack Obama.

Richie Havens performs at the Newport Folk Festival in August. He still embodies a the strength and optimism of a generation.
Richie Havens performs at the Newport Folk Festival in August. He still embodies a the strength and optimism of a generation.Read moreJOE GIBLIN / Associated Press

One of the first things you see on Richie Havens' Web site is a picture of the legendary folk musician standing in front of a polling place on Election Day. With an American flag behind him, Havens is smiling and giving a thumbs-up.

Just below that, there's a YouTube video that further connects the dots. Posted by one of Havens' daughters, the video features a montage of images both tragic and hopeful - war and its devastation, telltale signs of our dire financial times (including sullen people presumably standing in an unemployment line), followed by photos of Barack Obama inspiring the masses.

Havens' live version of "Here Comes the Sun" from 1971 plays as the images appear, and the message couldn't be more obvious: Havens, now as much as ever, still embodies the strength and optimism of a generation.

That goes back to Woodstock in 1969, when Havens played his way into history books with an opening set that yielded an impromptu anthem, "Freedom." Havens had been kicking around the Greenwich Village folk scene since the early '60s, but Woodstock brought him worldwide acclaim that still resonates 40 years later.

"Every time I go to the airport, without fail, someone will come up to me and say, 'Oh, man, I wish I had been at Woodstock,' " Havens says from his home in Brooklyn on a rare day off from touring. "I literally hear that everywhere I go."

Of course, it's hard to miss Havens. At 67, he cuts a majestic figure, much like his recently departed friend Odetta did. ("I always knew when she was in the room because she'd come up behind me and pinch my bottom," he says fondly. "I'd say, 'Uh-oh. Odetta's here, everybody,' and she'd burst into laughter.").

The statuesque Havens has always looked something like a shaman, with a long beard that's now more salt than pepper and massive hands covered in chunky silver and turquoise rings. His profile was heightened even more last year when he had a small part as a back-porch picker named Old Man Arvin in

I'm Not There

, Todd Haynes' fictional account of the many facets of Bob Dylan. It made sense that Havens was part of the project given his various interpretations of Dylan's catalog ("All Along the Watchtower" is a particular highlight).

"I sing a lot of his songs because they're the ones that move me the most," he says. "That's why they come out so easily for me."

Havens has also found fresh inspiration in Obama's victory. In fact, many of the songs on Havens' new album,

Nobody Left to Crown

, written long before the election, now seem prophetic. A cover of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" sounds like a pointed criticism of the Bush administration. Havens wrote the title track, which he says is meant to encourage discourse about current affairs.

"It poses a question: What if politicians were all good guys?" Havens says. "We just crowned our new leader, and now we have a whole new book to read and write."

The album features a full band behind Havens, including Walter Parks on guitar and Stephanie Winters on cello, and it's a little more polished than 2004's

Grace of the Sun

. But, as with every Richie Havens album, there are glimmers of his forceful guitar playing, renowned for its complex rhythmic nuances and percussive overtones.

He made it clear recently that he still relishes the role of a guitar virtuoso. At Massey Hall in Toronto back in October, Havens was in the middle of a fast and furious strumming pattern when he seemed to flinch just a bit.

"Sorry about that," he said later. "My pick dissolved in my hand."