POP MUSIC REVIEW : Donovan’s On Again : As in ‘Old’ Days, It’s Cool to Like Him, as Crowd Proves at Show That Includes Most of His Hits
Unless you’re appreciably under 30 or over 48, chances are you were a Donovan fan at one point--a point that, to be specific, extended from 1965 to about 1968. Some artists are ideal only for a certain age group and none other--Ray Bradbury novels are magic if you’re ages 8 to 12, yet seem like the most pompous, fatuous prose imaginable to anyone older.
Well, for the extended, expanded youth of the mid-'60s, Donovan was just like the magical minstrel he often spoke of being. His records and performances were spell-weaving things, and it wasn’t until the spell wore off, somewhere amid the napalm and hash smoke of 1969, that we all awoke to realize we’d been singing along to such dippy little rounds of playground mysticism as “happiness runs in a circular motion/Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.”
This guy was singing about loving his shirt! He was talking to dirt on the beach! Compared to Donovan, the Maharishi looked like the Marlboro Man! And we liked him?
So, a generation went into heavy denial, and old Don was put out to pasture. He didn’t stop working: His 1973 “Cosmic Wheels” album had moments, and he did movie scores for such noted directors as Jacques Demy and Franco Zeffirelli. It’s just that we all did our best not to notice.
Maybe it’s the abundance of new-age dross these days, or maybe it’s because our modern icons are of such poor stock that even Lyndon Johnson is starting to look pretty good by comparison: In any event, it seems to be cool to like Donovan again. At least that was the appraisal of the packed house Sunday evening at the Coach House, where the Scottish singer received a warm welcome and two standing ovations.
For his part, the 45-year-old singer may not have been spellbinding, but he was generally entertaining throughout his 19-song solo show. Looking only a bit puffy around the edges and still sporting thick curls of Donovan hair, he hadn’t changed much externally. However, the muse that had made him such an inviting performer in the ‘60s seems to be a more elusive thing now, surfacing only at times.
He got off to a shaky, seemingly uncertain start, with his voice sometimes going awry and reminding unnervingly of the desperate sincerity Sally Struthers brings to trade-school commercials. That deflated his first three songs, “The Little Tin Soldier,” Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” (which now includes a reference to Saddam Hussein) and “Catch the Wind.”
He finally seemed to get his own wind on “Sunshine Superman,” catching a celebratory mood with his vocal, and capably replacing the record’s party-band arrangement with just his lone guitar. He applied a thick tremolo to his vocal on “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and even managed to sing the fuzztone solo Jimmy Page had played on the record.
The highlight of the tune, though, was a spoken midsection where he recounted staying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in the company of the Beatles, a Beach Boy and Mia Farrow. In their awkward first meeting with the cross-legged holy man, he said, John Lennon broke the silence by going up, patting the Maharishi on the head and pronouncing, “There’s a good guru.” Donovan also sang an unrecorded verse to the song written by George Harrison, which was only further justification for his being “the quiet Beatle.”
Most of his other oldies also were delivered, including “Colours,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” “Season of the Witch"--which sported some fine harmonica playing--"Hey Gyp,” and the ultimate new-age anthem “Atlantis.”
So many of his songs bask in the sunlight that it’s easy to forget that some of Donovan’s best songs--and ones that best stake his claim as an artist--essay the downside of life. His most affecting numbers Sunday were “Young Girl Blues,” which deals with suicide, and the study of loneliness, “Lalena.” Both caught a bit of the evocative bardic power more often heard from his old British folk music friend Bert Jansch.
The disappointing aspect of Donovan’s show were his new songs. He worked only a handful into the set, and one can only presume these are the ones he likes best from his two-decade absence.
Even when given the inspiration of the California desert--Donovan lived in Joshua Tree for a time, and cited the influence of the late Gram Parsons’ songs--he could only come up with such predictable mouthings as “My voice I raise, I sing your praise, Oh, the desert days.”
The only newer song that carried some of his old authority was the encore closer, “There Are No Roads.” It was reminiscent of his earliest folk-based material, and Donovan put a lot of feeling, if no new twists, into its message of the need to forge one’s own path in life.