At the age of 71, Donovan looks like the before portion of a morning TV makeover show: his hair is stringy, his clothes faux-Bohemian aging hippie shabby and loose fitting, his voice has a crack to it, and his sweet pretty face is lined and fitting. But his performance at the Cutting Room last night had an ageless, hopeful, coulda tripped out easy vibe to it, and the Scottish 60s superstar who went from folk to psychedelia all with a pop veneer via Mickie Most, maintained his skills to slip through the loop of time and less take us back and more tug us in directions he had taken.
If you’re a child of the 60s, Donovan looms large on the horizon. As seen from there, he was a poppier Dylan, a set of songs from 1965’s “Catch The Wind” through 1968’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” that is not a million miles away from the way Halsey plays EDM towards singer-songwriter confessional. Donovan is aware of this though last night, during a truncated set to make way for a second performance, he was the signpost for the hippie dream with the clouds only appearing twice. One, the lame “Universal Soldier” and next the dark side of the dream world “Season Of The Witch”. Interspersing anecdotes that, perhaps because it was a shorter than usual set, didn’t add up to a world view, we embark with the bohemian teen as a seventeen year old , and best friend Gypsy Dave (a famous sculptor today), traveling from Scotland to England, performing Gaelic folk with a swirl of the US dustbowl (by which I mean Woody Guthrie) in its playfulness, and a knack for tunes. He opened with “Catch The Wind” –an essential part of the first act of Donovan’s pop scene, all corduroy caps and harmonica, a playful Brit variant on Bleeker Street folk, but with a vaguely Tin Pan Alley feel for how songs are heard. The very next song was “Colours,” –a subtle and clever lyric that starts with a concept, veers to the left of it, before coming back. How subtle is it? In 1965 that “yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair in the morning when we rise” was the essence of pre-marital sex and no one even began to notice.
Here, near the beginning, all of Donovan’s gifts are on display, a sturdy songwriter with good ear, he plays simple chord changes over a weather beaten acoustic guitar and the songs are fine with zero strain, zero adds, because, well because he is a terrific songwriter. Not a bad storyteller either, he moves us quickly to concerts at the Blackpool Pier, hashish dropped on beaches in a rush from teenage girls, and young kid hi-jinx with first tier pop stars Roger Daltry, Peter’s Noone and Townshend , and more. Donovan has so many stories he doesn’t even get round to Bob Dylan. The songs go from early folk maneuvers like “Remember The Alamo” through blown up strangeness “The Ballad Of Geraldine” to set ending “Atlantis”. There is a pose to this but not a greatness, Donovan had to get on stage and off stage to start up the 930p second set which was apparently the stronger of the evening. Given his minstrelsy proclivity, Donovan doesn’t go out of his way to connect with his audience. Everything is a little canned, there is no eye contact, no kidding back and forth, he doesn’t respond to calls from the audience, and his essence is a quickly irritating “Hey Mon…’ in a Jamaican accent, and a “you sing” which didn’t get us going. I don’t claim he was going through the motions, but there was a slight illness at ease.
Any and all problems can be washed away by Donovan the psychedelic popstar, the years have caused him to drop the “I’ll pick up your hand and blow your little mind” line, but they’ve only added luster to its austere yet wide dream state. Along with “Mellow Yellow” and “Season Of the Witch” it leads us towards the end of the evening. Donovan seems to think it’s the smoking of banana skins that last (a Country Joe prank that outlasted its shelf life, he tells us), but it is the “quite rightly” –a tremendous little hook and Donovan gets all of it, speaking the line with a crisp upper class toff voice that we remember. Throughout the night you are reminded how his skills dovetail. “Jennifer Juniper” is a wondrous song, it would be a wonder if only for the “is she breathing? Yes very low” –a terrific image of angelicness and fragility on a song that is ripe for a Miley Cyrus cover –really, to show all those So cal would be hippies how it is done.
There is a sense where last night was a version of Donovan –which figures, everyone wants his 60s stuff, but even so is an incomplete vision. No “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” no “Epistle To Derroll” –in fact nothing at all off A Gift From A Flower To A Garden: at the very least, that is cultural amnesia. There is a Donovan within Donovan, he isn’t a footnote to the period, rather he was a major player and a hugely gifted singer and songwriter. What stays with you listening to him 50 years later is how strong his songs are, if there is something a little indifferent about the man, if he isn’t throwing up peace signs or telling us how love and peace lives on, or even how bad trips live on (he giggles during “Witch”), everything that remains for us to see reinforces a place where pop and nostalgia are oil and water, the mix is difficult to sustain. They should be functioning as standard issue remember when you loved this, but they are too strong. The pity is that maybe Donovan doesn’t quite understand that for music guys, we remember the albums, we wouldn’t mind her performing his first three albums complete, and we wouldn’t mind a band behind him. Last night at the Cutting Room was just a touch too rote, Donovan didn’t go deep enough, he couldn’t bring us where we wanted to go: into his state of mind, the place where his beliefs and his songs connect and exist forever as a perfect harmony for all of us. He didn’t blow our little minds.
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