Richie Havens became an international star in 1969, when he opened the Woodstock Festival with a set that was three hours long and culminated with "Freedom," a song he improvised on the spot based on the traditional slave song "Motherless Children." Havens has been on the road ever since, known for his unique driving acoustic guitar style, soulful gravel-throated vocals, and freewheeling set lists. He has written plenty of his own songs over the years, but he's best known for his interpretations of other songwriters. On Nobody Left to Crown, his 30th album of new material, Havens interprets the Who, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Jackson Browne, but the majority of the tunes are his own, and they stand proudly alongside the covers. "The Key" opens things up with a meditation on the healing power of love. It's a gentle folk-rock tune with a hint of samba in the rhythm and Havens' smooth, timeless vocals offering solace to both his lover and the world. "Say It Isn't So" speaks about the troubles of the world with the disbelief of a child facing death for the first time. A cello adds its poignant voice to Havens' heartbreaking vocal. The title track is the kind of driving, rhythmic tune Havens is so good at -- a look at the clay feet of our leaders delivered with ironic humor instead of anger. He drops a quote from "Home on the Range" into the chorus, singing "where seldom is heard an encouraging word, and our leaders do nothing all day." He rages gently against the powers that be on "Fates," a blues that likens capitalism to slavery. The song builds slowly to a moaning coda with Havens wordlessly lamenting the mess the world is in, while Harry Manx adds stinging accents on slide guitar and mohan veena. Pete Townshend's "Won't Get Fooled Again" gets slowed down, with Havens' vocal more hopeless than angry. When he sings "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," he sounds weary and defeated. Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance," written about the U.S.-supported war in El Salvador, still sounds unhappily timely, and Havens delivers the lyric with a searing intensity. Peter Yarrow's "The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life)" appears near the end of the album, another prayer for sanity in a world that seems to be going mad once again. The music here is quiet, acoustic, and downbeat, with Havens sounding cautiously optimistic as he faces life and death. The album's not an upper, but even the darkest songs are suffused with Havens' gentle soulfulness.
AllMusic Review by j. poet