Poor Donovan: his reputation with the hipsters never really recovered from Don’t Look Back.
If you’re a music fan and you’ve never seen the film, you really should do so immediately. Directed by D. A. Pennebaker and shot during Bob Dylan’s 1965 British concert tour, it’s considered one of the definitive documents of the 1960s music scene. Through no fault of his own, Donovan had been tagged as England’s answer to Dylan. Dylan had been informed that Donovan played better than him. Moreover, as hard as it may be to believe now, his records tended to sell better. When the two troubadours finally met up in a hotel room, the film captures Donovan politely performing “To Sing For You”. Dylan seems to barely tolerate the performance, before taking the guitar and countering with a savage “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, all but spitting the words “it’s all over now” at Donovan.
Actually, Donovan only really sounded like Dylan in the early days, when he was still singing material by Tim Hardin and Buffy Saint-Marie. Sure, his early original songs, “Catch the Wind” and “Colours”, bear undeniable similarities to the best of Bob, but he grew out of those pretty damned quick. By 1966, he had found his own hippy-dippy niche; Rolling Stone declared him the “prince of flower power,” and songs like “Sunshine Superman”, “Season of the Witch”, “Mellow Yellow”, and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” were undeniably Donovan.
The hits stopped coming somewhere around the beginning of the ‘70s, though it didn’t stop Donovan from continuing to record and release albums. After 1984’s Lady of the Stars, however, he went quiet, focusing his efforts on his family, as well as painting and photography. It would be over a decade before his self-imposed hiatus came to an end. He released Sutras in 1996, featuring the production of longtime fan Rick Rubin, and musical assistance from Nigel Kennedy, Jonny Palonsky, Dave Navarro (of Jane’s Addiction), Steve Ferrone (Average White Band), and famed session drummer Benmont Tench. (Personal note: By complete happenstance, I was on a rare visit to New York City when Donovan was promoting Sutras and was able to catch a short acoustic performance he gave to hype the disc. It holds particular poignancy for me because the gig took place at the Borders location at the World Trade Center. It was the first and only time I’d ever been to the twin towers.)
Now, eight years after Sutras, Donovan has finally returned with another new album, Beat Cafe, released by Appleseed Records, also home to Martyn Joseph and Kate McDonnell.
The sparse production of Sutras may have had Rick Rubin’s good intentions behind it, but the end result suggested that he was trying to reproduce the effect he’d had on Johnny Cash’s career, and revitalize another one of his musical heroes. It didn’t work: the songs were fine and the album had its moments (in particular “Please Don’t Bend” and “The Way”), but the melodies weren’t consistently substantial and, as a result, the album came and went with little fanfare.
Beat Cafe, however, is unquestionably the strongest album that Donovan has released since his ‘60s heyday. Producer John Chelew, whose talents have been utilized by folks from Paul Weller to the Blind Boys of Alabama, comes into proceedings with the perfect feel for the material. The album’s title suggests exactly what kind of feel you’re in for. You can imagine this disc being the soundtrack for a gathering of beatniks, drinking coffee and snapping their fingers to Danny Thompson’s double bass on the title cut, or to Jim Keltner’s brushed beat on “Poorman’s Sunshine”.
Donovan’s voice doesn’t appear to have aged a day since the ‘60s, nor have his sensibilities changed. Both are evident on “Yin My Yang”. He sings the lines “And there’ll be music / Music in the air / Flowers in your hair / Life without a care”; not only are you positively certain that he means it, but he sounds so serene that you can’t provide a decent reason to argue. There’s a dark psychedelia to “The Question” and, on “Lord of the Universe”, Donovan gets bluesy as he assures the listener that “It’s best you don’t mess with me / Cos I’ll stomp on you”. Given Sutras, it’s ironic that the cover of the traditional “The Cuckoo” is delivered in a style that Johnny Cash would have been quite comfortable with. There’s even a mostly-spoken version of “Do Not Go Gentle”, by that other Dylan—Dylan Thomas.
Beat Cafe ends with Donovan’s equivalent of “Country Roads”, a song called “Shambhala”:
Take me home, back to Shambhala,
Where peaceful rivers flow,
Take me home, back to Shambhala,
Where seeds of love they flow.
Through this dream called life,
We all play a part
Till the day we awake
Unto the gentle heart.
Yes, Donovan may still be the same hippy-dippy poet that he was in the mid- to late-‘60s, but there’s something comforting about that. He’s just as optimistic now as he was then, and, considered how tough times have gotten as of late, it might just be time for that long-deserved Donovan comeback.
God knows, Beat Cafe is strong enough to make it happen.