Out of the fertile '60s British music boom, Donovan stood out from his contemporaries by imbuing his songs with an affection for mythology and mysticism several years before it was in vogue. He also, unlike many other folkies, composed songs that were structured like folk songs of yore; sure, "Sunshine Superman" is psychedelica and "Catch the Wind" is lilting pop, but more often than not on his early albums, he's drawing on centuries of Irish and British folk tradition.
Even so, when Donovan played Carnegie's Zankel Hall on Thursday (Sept. 15) night and spoke of "old songs," it was slightly jarring to realize he wasn't talking about tracks from albums like Sunshine Superman (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year), but rather songs that predate the era of recorded music. So while everyone at the 70 year old's intimate concert was ready for hits from years past, they may not have been prepared for a night that was as much Merlin as "Mellow Yellow."
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That's because the 'greatest hits' version of Donovan's career typically overlooks the Tolkien territory he toyed with on early albums. But at Carnegie, Donovan revisited some of his less-heralded songs that mine the kind of mysticism you find in early W.B. Yeats poems. Much like that Irish poet, Donovan would go on to bigger success (and more memorable material) when he focused less on the ancient past and more on the then-present, but there's still a captivating quality to his intricately constructed (if somewhat lyrically dippy) folk-folk songs.
From the medieval "Guinevere" to the modern "Jennifer Juniper," Donovan's backwards-gazing folk music and melodic folk-pop were both well-represented at Carnegie.
His predilection for storytelling was front and center, too -- it seemed like at least a fourth of the evening was occupied by Donovan the Raconteur vs. Donovan the Troubadour. Thankfully, the stories were uniformly charming and filled with famous names (Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney, Keith Moon) to keep the baby boomer audience engaged. Whether sharing the story of how he contributed key lyrics to "Yellow Submarine" or recalling the time a pre-stoner Graham Nash chided him for smoking weed backstage, Donovan - sitting cross-legged the whole show -- frequently ended his stories with the admission, "I lived it, and I barely believe it myself."
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But obviously, people weren't there for storytime -- they were there for the songs, and Donovan duly delivered most of the material you'd want to hear. His guitar fingering was impeccable, and his voice was respectable for a performer his age -- only during the high notes on "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" did he seem to be stretching beyond his limit. On the other hand, his otherworldly vibrato was stunningly powerful on "Hurdy Gurdy Man," one of the night's strongest moments. (For comparison, and for those familiar with the 21st century touring abilities of '60s alumni, Donovan's voice is far more assured than Brian Wilson's, but not quite as strong as McCartney's these days.)
But Donovan's secret weapon has always been his effortless charm. Even though his cherub face disappeared decades ago, he still exudes a sense of wonder at the world. When speaking of the Irish folk songs his mother sang when he was a child, he seemed as enamored of them Thursday night as he was six decades ago. And though he listed at least a dozen rock legends in his stories, it never felt like name-dropping -- he seemed to be filled with delighted disbelief at his good fortune to have been part of history.
It was ultimately that charm that turned what could have been an acoustic parade of golden oldies into something special: An evening that felt as much like a concert as it did a shared experience.