RICHIE HAVENS

"Grace of the Sun"

Stormy Forest

Richie Havens once displayed a rare gift as a song scout. On his early albums, he unearthed gems by such obscure songwriters as Jerry Merrick, Billy Edd Wheeler and Dino Valente. Moreover, Havens also demonstrated a knack for adapting such traditional folk songs as "Run Shaker Life" and "Freedom/Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" into exciting new arrangements. On his new album, "Grace of the Sun," however, those talents are missing in action.

For the new disc, Havens chooses an overly obvious Bob Dylan tune ("All Along the Watchtower") and two of the weakest songs that Joni Mitchell and Fred Neil ever wrote. There are no traditional tunes, and his five original songs and one instrumental fill out the record. Songwriting was never Havens's strong point, and the new-age sentimentality and heavy-handed preaching of his new material explains why he was attracted to Mitchell's "Woodstock" and Neil's "Red Flowers."

It's too bad, because the CD sounds really good. Havens has assembled an amazingly eclectic band -- a blues steel guitarist, a Turkish violinist, a jazz bassist, an Indian tabla drummer, a classical cellist, a guitarron player and others -- that jells behind his mesmerizing foghorn baritone. Even at age 63, that voice is in great shape, able to hold out syllables with enough rumbling conviction to make you believe in even the hoariest cliches.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Richie Havens, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)