[12 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Richie Havens has traveled full circle. In 1967, the Brooklyn-born musician/poet/painter laid his musically eclectic sensibilities to vinyl on Mixed Bag. The vanguard of new singer-songwriters then epitomized by Verve Forecast was an appropriate home for his debut, an album that featured his interpretations of Bob Dylan, Jesse Fuller, Gordon Lightfoot, as well as his own compositions. The “mixed bag” ethos became the cardinal rule of Havens’ career: raised on doo-wop and gospel, versed in folk, and regarded for his distinct guitar tunings, Richie Havens has never ceased playing or recording since that auspicious debut, changing with and documenting the times on his six-string guitar. He’s a warhorse of the road, ever committed to the troubadour life he began years ago as a new arrival on the Greenwich Village coffee house scene. Unlike the prickly attitude of his more celebrated peers, Havens has not forsaken his folk renown. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Nobody Left to Crown, his stunning return to the label that introduced him to the world 40 years ago.
The rough-hewn texture of his voice has survived four decades relatively unscathed. Remarkably, his voice still has the same tone that rang out on songs like “Handsome Johnny” from Mixed Bag and “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” from Something Else Again (1968). His outlook on the world at large has also remained intact. A close listen to Havens’ lyrics reveals that he is a critical optimist. He hopes for change yet is very aware of the “men in the shadows” whose alleged protection of liberty is a smoke screen for more insidious dealings. The dubious intersection of faith and politics that has so defined the current U.S. administration is the underlying subject of the title track:
What if they gave an election and nobody came to vote?
The system it needs better correction, right now
It just might seem like changing direction, right now
As it stands we don’t even make the selection
And to get into heaven we even need a connection
“Nobody Left to Crown” gives a hint of hope in its otherwise bleak snapshot of politics. In the absence of a leader, Havens suggests, the people need to lead themselves. To paraphrase a theory he’s often expressed in concert, we are the government, the people in the nation’s capital are government representatives. It is up to the people to fight for change.
Havens wrests “Lives in the Balance” from Jackson Browne, a song that also appeared on Cuts to the Chase (1994). Havens’ is the definitive version. You can hear the urgency in his guitar playing as he intones with his gentle growl, “I’ve been waiting for something to happen/for a week, or a month or a year”. Written more than 20 years ago, the song is as timely as ever with Browne’s chilling observation about how the United States may stand for freedom, but it oppresses the lives of people in faraway lands, not to mention its own people. What Richie Havens brings to the song is the emotion of a sage who’s seen the cycle of war and corrupt politics one too many times. (He infuses The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” similarly with a seething, defiant spirit.)
A cover of Citizen Cope’s “Hurricane Waters” has a poignant resonance in light of Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami that swept through Southeast Asia in 2004, and other natural disasters that have tested humankind’s mettle. The hypnotizing chord movement inches forward with Havens’ voice growing more impassioned in each repetition of “I will carry you through the hurricane waters”. The song is wonderfully fleshed out by Havens’ fantastic core band that includes Walter Parks (guitar), Stephanie Winters (cello), Keith Christopher (bass), and Shawn Pelton (drums). Winters’ cello adds an entrancing percussive element to the arrangement here. Elsewhere the expressive tone of her cello gives tracks like “The Key” and “We All Know Now” a second “lead” voice, creating something of a duet with Havens. Producers Jay Newland and Brian Bacchus (and Havens) must also be credited with the fine production that dresses “Hurricane Waters” and the remainder of the album.
Nobody Left to Crown completes the trilogy of Havens’ output for the ‘00s. Wishing Well (2002) and Grace of the Sun (2004), released on his own Stormy Forest imprint, indicated that some of Havens’ best material has arrived in the latter part of his career. (The only piece missing now is a live album that corresponds to this most recent phase, capturing the raw intensity that he delivers to his audience.) With a return to the label that started his recording career, Nobody Left to Crown is the most consistently good of the three albums. Like the most prolific songwriters and storytellers, Richie Havens is a man who still has so many more things to say, in both his own words and through the work of others who touch his fiery, poetic soul.