By Mike Finkelstein
On Friday night, none other than ‘60s flower power figure Donovan headlined at the packed El Rey Theater. His show was a swirling and at times uneven mix of his friends, relatives and musical collaborators. It was an ambitious format that required quite a bit of compensation in the sound mix from song to song — a very long night for whoever was running the sound board.
The show began with an introduction by David Lynch and a quick film montage of Donovan’s early career as a hit maker. Then the music, and from start to finish there was a different lineup onstage for every song, with a busy rotation of players. One really needed a scorecard to follow the activity and at the end there were 17 performers onstage. Some joined for several verses, departed mid-song and could then be seen in the audience, only to reappear onstage a few songs later.
At the center of it all stood Donovan, holding a luscious green and red guitar with shimmering mother of pearl inlays, handling the whole throbbing scene with charm. But as beautiful as that guitar was, he wound up having to fine tune or retune it too often. A fleet of similarly crafted guitars as backups and alternates would have looked amazing and made for a much smoother show.
The set included songs from all periods of his career, ranging from his iconic worldwide 60’s hits to some of his later, lesser-known songs. Perhaps predictably, the instantly recognizable hits went over much better than the later less compelling material. Most of the audience seemed to have been about the right age to have heard his songs as children or teenagers. Songs such as “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Catch the Wind,” “Atlantis,” “Season of the Witch,” and “Lalena” really do represent the sound of their time magnificently and they were the main reason so many people came to see him perform.
Despite the disappointing omission of the elegant ballad “Jennifer Juniper,” Donovan played many favorites and kept the arrangements close to the originals. He even provided the signature horn section in “Mellow Yellow,” complete with trombone and trumpet. Staying true to the recordings was a good move because, even on a transistor radio, the songs have a phenomenal sonic presence rooted in the instrumental arrangements and particularly in his rich young voice. At times Friday, Donovan recaptured and delivered that sound. At times he had help. Still, other times he didn’t quite get it over. He did go in and out of talking the lyrics, perhaps weary from delivering the hits over the years. But when he pushed himself, his voice responded beautifully and he can still make it waver in his own trademark style.
Several guest vocalists including Poe, Amrita Sen and daughter Astrella Celeste joined Donovan with mixed results. On the songs with Amrita Sen, she played the harmonium but it was lost in the mix. The harmonies with his daughter did not work well, perhaps in part due to the sound mix. In contrast, on “Sunshine Superman,” Matt Costa came on and sounded spot-on like Donovan did about 35 years ago, if only for a fleeting couple of verses. But he left the stage before the song ended. Guitarist Lawrence Juber guested for “Season of the Witch” and “Lalena,” and even helped Donovan dodge embarrassment to get back in tune mid-song from his tuning from the ‘’harmonium” segment of the show. One had to wonder why there were not several guitars all in the desired tunings ready and waiting in the wings.
Matt Sorum, the power drummer from Guns ‘n Roses, the Cult and Velvet Revolver, played tambourine throughout the set and at the end of the evening sat down behind the drums to power the band through a climactic “Hurdy Gurdy Man” — one of the great songs that became an anthem for many involved with or supporting the counterculture in 1968. The original version features a transcendent fuzz guitar solo that is the euphoric high point of the song. Alas, the nuances of this solo were lost at the El Rey. The subtlety in and between the guitar lines of the original was forsaken for the crunch of a distorted amp and a wah-wah pedal.
(Curiously, the original guitar solo on “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a source of a legendary mystery. No one who was there for the recording session can agree about who played it. John Paul Jones was the musical director and played bass on the session and claims it was Alan Parker. Jimmy Page doesn’t remember playing on the session and also claims it was Alan Parker. Donovan was there and claims it was Jimmy Page. All of this would support the notion that if one can remember what happened in the 60’s, they may not have actually been there.)
As a warm up for a future tour the show indicated that there is much to be optimistic about, as well as adjustments that need to be made. Donovan is still a charismatic performer and his older songs stand the test of time nicely. The original arrangements were not gimmicky to begin with and on Friday it was apparent that he can comfortably recreate much of the old material on stage. Although a few extra pre-tuned guitars wouldn’t hurt the effort, either.
The concert was a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation, an organization that makes transcendental meditation available to school children who particularly need to de-stress. Donovan actually went with the Beatles on their visit to the Maharishi in India to study meditation and it continues to be important to him, hence the connection. Blessed the Strange opened the show, followed by Jack Maness backed by Rickshaw.