What does it sound like?:
Donovan comes in for a fair amount of good-natured derision here on the Afterword, much of it well deserved. He does tend to take himself far too seriously, after all. But look beyond the hubris and self-importance and you’ll find a unique talent and some truly timeless songs.
This double DVD set comes in a CD sized card sleeve and looks to be the product of a busy cottage industry which sells merchandise from Donovan’s base in Ireland. I say “cottage industry” because, although nicely designed, these appear to be the kind of blue discs you’d copy at home. I guess that’s the way it works with small production runs from independent record labels these days. And yes, my copy is hand signed by the man himself.
Recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June 2011, but held back until now (presumably to tie-in with the 50th anniversary) what we have here is the full US version of the Sunshine Superman album, plus extras, performed live with a full orchestra, backing singers and a rock band including a handful of big-name guests. The London Contemporary Orchestra is conducted by Don’s long-time arranger John Cameron. The pair have worked together on and off since 1965 and Cameron was responsible for the wonderfully innovative keyboard, string and brass arrangements on those classic pop psych albums Don recorded between 1966-68.
Introduced by his daughter Astrella Celeste (yes, the one who was, for some years, romantically involved with Paul Ryder out of Happy Mondays, go figure) Donovan takes the stage looking great for a man of pension age, as he was in 2011. Dressed in a flowery shirt and velvet tunic and still with most of that luxurious head of hair intact, he launches into a potted history of “my album” Sunshine Superman. Almost unbelievably recording for that album started in late 1965 with the title track. Imagine that! Maybe Don did invent psychedelia after all.
Presenting the album in track order, Donovan floors the RAH audience by bringing on Jimmy Page right off the bat for the opening number. Dressed entirely in black with his snow-white hair tied back, Page straps on a three pick-up black Gibson Les Paul and grinning hugely, peels off that oh-so familiar Sunshine Superman guitar motif. As a virtually unknown session man he played on the original big hit single half a century ago along with bassist John Paul Jones, who, sadly, is not here tonight. Page is on great, if typically sloppy, form and he and Don share a big hug as he leaves the stage after just the one song.
The band and orchestra sound magnificent, but Donovan’s voice seems strained and on the quiet, acoustic songs such as Legend Of A Girl Child Linda he struggles to make some of the high notes. This song is simply a succession of identical word-heavy verses, but John Cameron’s complex orchestral arrangement builds layer on layer to maintain interest until the end. Astrella also sings unison on some verses.
It’s not often you see a sitar played in anger these days, but step forward Don’s old mate Shawn Phillips for Three Kingfishers and Ferris Wheel. Phillips contributed 12-string guitar and sitar to the very early Donovan albums, including Sunshine Superman and he still cuts an imposing figure with his gaunt, chiselled visage and waist length hair worn in a ponytail. A multi-instrumentalist, Phillips also doubles on electric guitar during the concert, playing a frankly bizarre twin-neck instrument which is half Gibson Les Paul and half Fender Stratocaster!
Bert’s Blues, one of several Donovan songs inspired by Bert Jansch, starts off acoustically and builds to mighty jazz swing climax with another fine orchestral arrangement from Cameron, who also plays harpsichord. A veteran of many early Donovan albums, the venerable Danny Thompson is present on “concert bass” (that’s double bass to you) throughout.
Season of the Witch is possibly Don’s most covered song with countless versions over the decades. Seldom have two chords worked so well together to produce such a great song and tonight SOTW is delivered in its original lazy funk arrangement with some impressive guitar from LCO member Tom Ellis and a massive string finale.
A surprise guest arrives to throw some shapes and duet on The Trip. Turns out it’s Don’s son Donovan Leitch Jr, a tall, handsome young man in designer specs who looks like he’d be more at home spinning discs in a dance club than singing his dad’s hippy dippy lyrics.
Shawn Phillips steps up again to play sitar on Guinevere. Don relates the story of jamming round at Phillips’ Marble Arch flat in 1965 and recalls how they came up with The Fat Angel (written for Mama Cass, fact fans). Again, the string arrangements are exquisite on these two songs.
The last song on Sunshine Superman is the gentle, anthemic Celeste and it brings the main part of the show to a close. Dedicated to his mother-in-law Violetta “up in box number 40” Celeste rolls along on a heavenly wave of strings and brass.
After some effusive and extended band introductions, there follows a quite extraordinary encore version of Atlantis. Don’s voice has loosened up a little now and the spoken intro is delivered with impressive gravitas, easily as good as the original record. There must be 50 people on stage at this point and all of them seem to be playing at once during the long coda. Jimmy Page returns for a full orchestral reprise of Sunshine Superman and a singalong Mellow Yellow.
Disc 2 is in fact a condensed eight song presentation of the first half of the show featuring most of the big hits, including Catch the Wind, Jennifer Juniper, Hurdy Gurdy Man and others. These are, if anything, even more impressive and enjoyable than the main part of the programme.
Donovan’s voice is better than on the Sunshine Superman material and the band is right on the money, especially Tom Ellis who perfectly reproduces the heavy guitar parts on Hurdy Gurdy Man. Sadly Jeff Beck didn’t show up to reprise his performance on Barabajagal but that was the only thing missing from a magical night at the Albert Hall. Ellis has Beck’s parts down pat anyway.
What does it all *mean*?
Given the amount of people involved and the rehearsal time required, it must have cost an absolute fortune to present this show, which is probably why Donovan didn’t tour the world with it.
Eagle-eyed readers of the end credits will notice that Gypsy Dave is credited as “Donovan’s personal assistant”. Some things never change.
Goes well with…
All the other Donovan albums 1966 – 1968
Might suit people who like…
Psychedelic pop and acid folk.