sat 13/07/2024

Donovan, London Contemporary Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Donovan, London Contemporary Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall

Donovan, London Contemporary Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall

The Sunshine Superman pulls out the psychedelic stops - aided by Jimmy Page

Donovan: Psychedelia wins out over naffness

A question passed through my mind before last night’s Donovan show. Special guests were billed for this celebration of his classic psychedelic album Sunshine Superman. Perhaps they'd include Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page, both of whom played on Donovan's records in the Sixties. Then, introducing “Sunshine Superman”, Donovan mentions the then-session player Jimmy Page, who walks on and joins in. Seeing Page reunited with his pre-Led Zeppelin, pre-Yardbirds session man self was incredible.

Needless to say, he played great. Donovan shone.

Although Donovan got off to a flying start, scoring a residency on TV pop kaleidoscope Ready Steady Go, he was pretty easy to lampoon. He borrowed the first-album Bob Dylan look. His acoustic guitar had “This machine kills” written on it. He lacked the gumption to use the full “This machine kills fascists” phrase that Woody Guthrie’s guitar had sported. No wonder, then, that Dylan himself was chippy when the pair met, famously caught in the film Don’t Look Back. But Donovan was full of chutzpah and hurtling forward musically. His March 1965 debut single “Catch the Wind” was in hock to Dylan - for whom the answer was blowing in the wind. Donovan was going to catch the wind itself, answers and all. By December 1965, when he recorded “Sunshine Superman” in London, Donovan was prematurely inventing psychedelia. His Pye Records label mates The Kinks had kick-started something with their July 1965 raga-influenced single “See My Friend”.

That same December also found The Byrds recording their first version of “Eight Miles High” in LA. Donovan would never be as cool as The Byrds, partly due to the faux Dylanisms of his immediate past, but also because his long-playing psychedelic calling card, the Sunshine Superman album, was issued in the US only in September 1966. The sunshine in “Sunshine Superman” refers to LSD, while “The Trip” and “The Fat Angel” (“He will bring happiness in a pipe… in consenting to blow your mind, fly Translove Airways, get you there on time") laid it out. Legal wrangles (not about its content) prevented its UK release. When the British Sunshine Superman album finally emerged in summer 1967, it bowdlerised his two previous US sets. A June 1966 drug bust at his London home hadn’t helped either.

DonvoanRAHposter_webWhich, many many years on, two weeks after fellow Sixties types The Monkees hit the same stage, brings us to the Royal Albert Hall for this reclamation of Don's legacy – not just in psychedelia, he also pioneered fusing jazz and pop. Reunited with the Sunshine Superman album’s arranger John Cameron and with full backing from the London Contemporary Orchestra, this concert was a statement. Also joining Don were long-time collaborator Danny Thompson on stand-up bass and Shawn Phillips on sitar and guitar.

Just how convincing a statement could this be? With his poufed-up dyed hair, Donovan looks preternaturally naff. And his voice is not what it was. It took until the third chorus of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” for him to be able to reach the high register. His over-wobbly vibrato on “Catch the Wind” was, well, over-wobbly: “catch the w-w-i-i-i-i-n-d-d”, he sang.

But this is the man for whom strolling towards the ridiculous was always part of the bargain. Opening the concert with “Catch the Wind” was an immediate hello from the eccentric world of Donovan, his music and how he delivers it. Solo acoustic runs through “Colours”, “Try for the Sun” and “Universal Soldier” addressed the early Dylan era with terrific panache. The orchestra came on and the weirdness began with “Sunny Goodge Street” and a splendidly clangerous “Epistle to Dippy”. After “Jennifer Juniper”, the third section of the first set peaked early with an intense “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. "Barabajagal” followed. A lone groover got up in the stall's aisle, flailing as if he were at Spike Island. “Barabajagal” wasn’t far from The Stones Roses' “One Love”. Happy Mondays were card-carrying Donovan fans. Noel Gallagher was in last night's audience. Another thing then that Donovan pioneered: the Manc sound.

But cheese still surfaced. Donovan’s daughter Astrella Celeste made portentous announcements from the side of the stage. “Lalena” was introduced with the bon mot that Donovan “understands the dark night of the soul”. “Hurdy Gurdy Man" was “epic Celtic rock”.

The second set was an almost flawless run-through of the American, original Sunshine Superman album, opening with the Jimmy Page-assisted “Sunshine Superman”. “Season of the Witch” was as trippy as it could ever be and, with Cameron's sweeping, filmic orchestration, probably better than it ever was live. Sat with a tabla player and Shawn Phillips on sitar, Donovan delivered a sensitive “Three Kingfishers”. “The Trip”, though, could have done without the mugging presence of Donovan Leitch Jr on second vocal.

Donovan is a little absurd, and this is what makes him and his questing music great. With a self-consciousness, he could never have pioneered psychedelia or written a song like last night’s show closer “Atlantis”. This was a reclamation. Yet Donovan remains an eccentric visionary.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Watch Torbjörn Axelman’s 1966 promo film for Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”


Think you've got it exactly right about Donovan. I didn't go for fear the ridiculousness would overwhelm the rest. Perhaps a mistake.

Jimmy Page didn't play on Hurdy Gurdy Man last night!

I came, I listened, I was disappointed. I didn't mind Donovan's poor old voice. But the orchestra was under-rehearsed, the sound levels were a mess and Donovan used cue cards for some of the lyrics. His children were spotlight-hogging non-starters. The man wrote some of the catchiest pop singles ever heard and I'll always love them. And him, in a way. It was a shambles of an over-priced evening but, in its own weird way, memorable. Never again, though. Oh and Jimmy Page was turned way down in the mix. What a waste.

shattered memories.... I left after first set, I JUST COULD NOT BE MORE EMBARASED for Donovan.

If you didn't see the whole show, how can you comment?!

These comments are interesting because Donovan got a standing ovation at the end from the whole audience. The truth is, it was an uneven performance due to more rehearsals being needed and technological inadequacies, with highs and lows, not slick but with the warm, human quality that Donovan has always been known for. If you truly love his music, you couldn't possibly NOT have been moved by at the collaborations with Shawn Phillips and Jimmy Page and the conductor who helped Donovan with the original 'Sunshine Superman' album. The background orchestration was glorious on some songs. Donovan's voice wasn't always on top form but was usually strong and on-key. As far as his children go, for the show's centrepiece 'Legend of a Girl Child Linda', poor Astrella had to sit in a spotlight that was brighter on her than on Donovan, with her mike turned off! So you couldn't even hear her angelic tones for the song, which was for her mother. I don't call that hogging limelight. It was all showing familial love. Donovan Leitch Jr. even encouraged the audience to clap more for his father at the end. Some people don't seem to realise the old Donovan can't return; he doesn't exist. The current Donovan was simply revisiting that time in his life - for himself and his wife. It was beautiful for that reason alone and well worth the pittance, compared with the cost of most concerts today, that one paid to be there.

What a load of pretentious rubbish! Some people are never satisfied unfortunately and have to find something to gripe about. Donovan was absolutely fantastic at the Royal Albert Hall and well worth every penny. Yes, there were a few stumbles, but it was a momentous occasion for him and his family and I and everyone sat around me thoroughly enjoyed the whole concert. It was very touching to see his close relationship with his family and they in turn did what they did for him, not themselves. I've love Donovan since his first appearance on Ready Steady Go and I will continue to be a fan all the more after seeing him again. Thank you Donovan for a wonderful evening, taking me back to the 60s! From a girl of the 60s, Jennifer Juniper

Good comments from Jenny Bentley, Lydia and Gill. I agree with them all. The show was a nod to his past and that wonderful album of his. There were many high points at the concert and the audience appreciated them as could be told from the ovations the performers received. The naysayers are always around and were also anti-Donovan when he was a young artist at the peak of his success and vocal abilities. For some reason, his goodness attracts meanness from some quarters. With light comes dark, I suppose.

You were right first time that the third section of the first set peaked with Hurdy Gurdy Man, you just had the wrong guitarist. Jimmy Page came on at the start of the second set with Sunshine Superman. The guitar in Hurdy Gurdy Man was Tom Ellis.

The three greatest songwriters : Dylan, Cohen and Donovan. There are still some people that consider music "new" or "old". Incredible. As if Chopin could be "old". ..

So by your own long-term reasoning, artlion, that would make them the best songwriters of all time? Dylan, maybe, Cohen, fine if you limit it to late C20, Donovan, even then doubtful. And it depends whether you mean the songwriter has also to be the lyricist. But that's dangerous ground to tread on when we're also embracing Cole Porter, Sondheim and Schubert...

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