Hallelujah! The post holiday sandstorm of touring band nothingness is
finally waning. And the most notable show in the near future (that
would be Feb. 9 at the Fox Theatre) is that of the impish-looking,
iconic '60s folk/psychedelic/popster Donovan.
The Scotsman was oft compared to Dylan early in his career, sometimes
in a good way, such as when being called "Britain's answer to Bob
Dylan." And sometimes he was compared to Dylan in not so generous
terms. But it seems that many people were quick to throw him into the
pigeonhole of a Woody Guthrie-influenced hippy folk singer, without
realizing that he had his own distinctive voice. It's a voice that is
much more childlike, mystical and psychedelic than Dylan, often with
a homegrown Celtic flavor and arrangements that often tended to lean
towards the exotic side. And regardless, many recognized his talent
and flair for writing, even Bob Dylan himself.
He befriended other musicians such as Joan Baez, Rolling Stone Brian
Jones and the Beatles, whom he accompanied on that infamous trip to
India where they studied meditation with the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi.
The experience was powerful enough for the singer to do away with
drugs and begin promoting meditation, which he still does today. In
fact, he is currently working with legendary filmmaker David Lynch on
promoting research on the positive effects of transcendental meditation.
Though his highs have been natural ones for a very long time, the
influence drugs had on his songwriting is clearly evident on his
earlier recordings, such as "Sunshine Superman," "the Trip" and the
popular "Hurdy Gurdy Man." In fact, the hubbub that arose from his
1966 arrest for possession of marijuana made headlines as the first
high profile busts for a popular musician.
Donovan Leitch's career has been one filled with many crests and
troughs. There were top 10 hits in Europe and the States, such as
"Colours," "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Mellow Yellow." But there were also
periods where his music was rejected or ignored. When this occurred,
Donovan usually went into hiding, once even living in Joshua Tree for
a period of time.
But as an influential artist who is revered by many other serious
musicians, he was eventually called on to step out of the shadows and
back into the spotlight, which he always did obligingly. For example,
during the early '90s, a new wave of music that embraced psychedelia
hit Britain, and one of those bands was the Happy Mondays. They named
a song after the oft reclusive artist, and Donovan soon found himself
on tour with them, performing for an entirely new and younger audience.
Fortunately, this is one of those periods where Donovan is back on
the scene again. There has been talk of a new album (2004 brought the
release of his Rick Pubin produced Beat Café album), but details are
hard to come by. There is a new DVD that was shot last year at LA's
Kodak Theatre. And then there's this year's tour.
This Friday is the opportunity of a lifetime. I can attest to the
endearing charm of a live Donovan performance. Last March, I was
shocked to see Donovan listed as performing at a beautiful old church
in downtown Austin as part of the infamous SXSW music festival. The
nearly mystical-feeling stone building was the perfect backdrop for
his performance, and he definitely delivered.
Here's a quick recount:
"Sure enough, the elfin Donovan appeared from stage left, bright
green acoustic guitar in hand and smiling, launched right into an
enrapturing set of his greatest hits peppered with some newbies. His
voice was stronger for some songs than others, as was his guitar
playing, but all in all, it was a spellbinding performance for
"First of all, he couldn't have performed in a more appropriate venue
or for a more appreciative audience, who clapped and sang along
willingly at request. His in-between song banter was odd,
entertaining, sometimes mystical in nature and often downright kooky.
But it was sincere, as evidenced by the huge, sweet grin on Donovan's
face. Sometimes he was funny on purpose (like when he said he told a
reporter, "I'm not selling out, I'm selling in." when the topic of
licensing his songs for commercials was brought up) and sometimes it
seemed like he was funny by accident (like when he said something to
the effect of "The beauty you find in my music is the beauty you find
in yourselves"), but he was always fascinating. And with the
inclusion of gems like "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Mellow Yellow" and (my
favorite) "Season of the Witch," the crowd filed out post-encore with
smiles as genuine as Donovan's."
He's still got that bright green guitar and surely he's still got his
unique, enchanting charm, so those entering the Fox Theatre on Friday
will surely leave with the same genuine smiles as those lucky SXSWers
did a year ago.