Donovan, Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 13 June 2011
He's introduced to us as a 17-year-old who sleeps on the beach and sings songs of "seagulls, freedom and young love".
Actually, he's a 65-year-old playing one of the grandest venues in the UK. Donovan, whose psychedelic folk-pop has had something of a reappraisal recently, is back to perform seminal album Sunshine Superman – but first, we're treated to a potted history of his evolution from acoustic-strumming teen to fully-fledged hit maker.
I say treated – sometimes it feels more like a trial. Donovan's development, narrated by a young woman (his daughter, Astrella Celeste) is utterly cringeworthy. "Our young poet understands sadness", we're told, though a song that rhymes "Lalena" with "can't blame ya" is hardly insight into "the dark night of the soul".
The vocals aren't what they were, understandably – he's both gruffer and more quavery, getting a good five syllables out of the word "wind" in his opening number, wistful folk classic "Catch the Wind". Add some mincing dance moves, and an ill-advised Caribbean accent introducing "There Is a Mountain", and the squirm-factor is high here. But the music takes us pretty high, too.
Donovan is joined by the London Contemporary Orchestra, and while the first half feels under-rehearsed, the second, when they play Sunshine Superman, is delivered with considerably more flourish and polish. He's joined by Jimmy Page for the title track, which fizzes nicely. "Season of the Witch" is a rollicking sing-and-clap-along, while "Ferris Wheel" - incongruously hailed as a "choon!" by one crowd member – blends Shawn Phillips' sitar, Donovan's acoustic, and trembling backing from the orchestra. While lyrics may be simple – flowers, jewels, gypsies, fairies – musically, Sunshine Superman is an eclectic, intricate and ambitious album, and deserves this rich staging.
He encores with "Atlantis", a later hit that opens with a strange over-enunciated bit of mythic storytelling. I've never been able to stand it, but here it swells convincingly into a joyous, full-band final number. Donovan strides off triumphant, holding a flower aloft - apt, as this man is still, without any irony, a complete sixties flower child. Shame then, that he flogs the love with a further two encores, both hits he's already played in the first half. Nostalgia-laced album concerts can be a wonderful thing, but it's also good to know when to stop.
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