Donovan, Joe’s Pub, New York City, (July 27, 2004)

It was a dark and stormy night. Lightning filled the New York sky. Our dinner reservations were made for 8:30 in order that we finish eating before the show began, but Joe’s Pub doesn’t work that way (contrary to what their web site tells you). We arrived a little ahead of time in order to pick up the tickets and scout the place out, to discover that the reservations were for 9 o’clock instead. Well, okay, we were guaranteed a seat, and wouldn’t have to wait in the street like the non-dining crowd. Then the sky burst open and the torrential rains descended. Flood warnings were in effect, and my shoes were the first to succumb. “No,” we were told, “Everybody waits in the line.”

“Have you never been here before?” the dripping young fellow in front of us inquired.

“No, first time.”

“Well, this is the way it is at Joe’s Pub. They can’t organize anything!”

“Is the food good, at least?”

“Ummmm. No!” he responded curtly.

Oohboy!

The thing about standing in the rain is…there’s a point at which you simply can’t get any wetter. We reached that point a good ten minutes before they let us in. Then we were led to our seats off to the left of the stage. We had a good view but slightly back of the small platform. The lights dimmed. Could they get any dimmer? We sat in wet clothes that were no longer cold, just wet. But everyone was in the same boat. Even those intelligent and intrepid people carrying umbrellas had embarrassing wet spots…and flattened coifs.

After the waitress took our orders, the lights DID get dimmer. A solitary spotlight. A blonde fellow (who was in fact Richard Barone) in a sparkly jacket and wearing white gloves read a precious, pre-scripted introduction and Donovan took the stage, slung his green-topped guitar around his neck and proceeded to describe the beginnings of the “beat” movement. It was the start of a fascinating night of theater and music.

Let me say now, that the appetizer was exquisite. Grilled asparagus served with boccancino, tomato wedges, prosciuto and balsamic vinegar. Mmmm. The pasta entrée was average. And the entertainment was fabulous.

Donovan’s cute boy in the corduroy cap days are behind him. He’s a bit jowly and his still curly hair is now grey. He wore black slacks and turtleneck sweater, in keeping with the bohemian theme of his new album. We considered the new CD (beat café) a few weeks ago, but Tuesday night it was high concept!

Does Joe’s Pub regularly have huge posters of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on their wall? They did Tuesday night. And their spirits (along with William S. Burroughs) were very much in evidence.

Donovan is still a gifted finger-picker, and a rudimentary but satisfying bluesy soloist. He mixed old songs with the new and betwixt and between told tales of the old days, scuffling in the UK down “Sunny Goodge Street” with the “Sunshine Superman” trying to “Catch the Wind.” He encouraged sing-alongs from the crowd and we were all to happy to join in. The new songs are some of the most potent material he’s written in decades. His last CD Sutras, released some 8 years ago, had songs so light and wispy they threatened to blow away by the sheer spinning of the disc. The songs composed for beat café (at least, as they were presented on the stage at Joe’s Pub) were tough, focused and catchy. This may be a real comeback for Mr. Leitch.

Just Donovan and his green guitar. Red lights. Blue lights. Intimate and compelling renditions of the familiar tunes. And an audience that knew even the subtleties of the backing vocals. Then a bongo player took a chair, as Donovan talked about sitting around in London flats, smoking hashish and jamming for hours on end. Cool baby.

My friend Fran was not keen on seeing Donovan, but even soaked through, she started tapping her feet and enjoying the familiar songs. She was not prepared for the poetry readings and philosophical ramblings though.

So much of the beat café concept depends on that free and easy, yet seriously literary idea that defined the era. The Ginsberg/Kerouac link! Richard Barone answered Donovan’s call for “any poets in the audience?” He climbed onto the stage and read from a well-thumbed copy of Howl. Very cool! (but a little precious if you weren’t into it!) I think Donovan was surprised when other, non-planted audience members volunteered to read. The beautiful girl who quoted the Italian poem was wonderful.

Then there was the band. Stand-up bass, drums, percussion, and keyboards.

His band was made up of an old friend (Candy John on bongos) and some young New York players ( Greg Cohen on bass, Charles Giordano on keyboards and JT Lewis on drums) who added bite and zip. Later in the evening a cellist (Julia Kent) was brought out to work her magic in “Lalena.” Donovan described writing “Lalena” as wordplay on the name of singer Lotte Lenya, and finally it made sense. The cello was haunting. The band was tight, energetic and added just the right mix of new millennial professionalism to Donovan’s 60’s charm. For the big conclusion Bob Funk (trombone) and Crispin Cioe (sax) of the Uptown Horns came along for the ride. They made “Mellow Yellow” and “Season of the Witch” complete! Yat-da-da-dada-yadah, yat-da-da-dada-daaa! Wahwahwahh! Fantastic.

New songs, blended with all the old favorites. Poetry readings and classic poems set to music (some W.B.Yeats; Edgar Allen Poe’s “El Dorado”). As Donovan left the stage, his fans presented him with gifts, a CD, flowers, a book of Green Lantern comics! Adequate food, slow service, too many wet (but cool) people jammed into too small a space, and a Scottish troubadour fronting a hot band. A true New York City experience and a show I will not soon forget.

 

[David Kidney]