Richie Havens: Nobody Left to Crown

Some of Richie Havens' best material has arrived in the latter part of his career. The superb Nobody Left to Crown marks his return home to the label that introduced him to the world 40 years ago.

Richie Havens

Nobody Left to Crown

Label: Verve Forecast
US Release Date: 2008-07-29
UK Release Date: 2008-03-31

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.