Donovan Beat Cafe Joe's Pub 2004

Donovan's Beat Cafe At Joe's Pub July 29, 2004: A Review


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Beat Cafe: the Joe's Pub Concerts, Thursday July 29, 2004
by Ernie Black

On the afternoon of Thursday, July 29, 2004, a contingent of Donovan fans belonging to the online fan club Everlasting Sea converged on a Holiday Inn in lower Manhatten, where Soho meets Chinatown. We gathered in one hotel room, guitars and memorabilia in hand, to talk, jam, sing, and share our love of our favorite singer-songwriter of the halcyon days of the 1960s, a Scot of Irish ancestry raised in Glasgow, Scotland, and the south of England before striking out as a troubadour of modern times. The world may have passed Donovan by since 1970, but he has always continued to work, to create great new music and offer outstanding live performances around the world.

Donovan and the Beat Cafe Band
Donovan and the Beat Cafe Band (photo: Dan)

This year, marking his 40th anniversary in the music biz, Don has released an amazing new cd, Beat Cafe, his first in eight years since Sutras (not counting compilations and a charming children's album, Pied Piper, and arguably his best since 1970's Open Road. And here he was in New York City, only his second stop in his official mini-tour celebrating the release of the cd (having previously played a few sets at the Cafe DuNord in San Francisco, home of City Lights Bookstore and epicenter of the beat movement of the 1940s and 1950s).

We fans played and gabbed for several hours, but soon headed over to Joe's Pub, a small, dimly lit (appropriate venue for the concert as you will see) club a few blocks away.

Donovan Poormans Sunshine
Donovan: Poorman's Sunshine (photo: Dan)

Those of us who had booked dinner reservations settled in after the club opened at 6:00 pm for very nicely prepared Italian dinners while awaiting the bard's appearance on stage. He was to perform back-to-back sets that night, with a brief half-hour intermission, but if one wanted to keep one's table, one had to make double dinner reservations (which my wife and I, and most of our fan friends, did). The wait was not overlong; before I had finished my mussels and squid ink linguini, Donovan appeared on stage with his faithful guitar, Kelly, in hand. Shush, I think there's a pin dropping.

Donovan's progression from folk to folk-jazz-blues fusion comes very clear in the concerts, which open with a set of his finest early folk songs (Summer Day Reflection Song, a very moving rendition of Ballad of Geraldine, the ubiquitous Catch the Wind,), just him and his guitar. But then the mood shifts, the lights go low, and Don shifts into storyteller mode to introduce the second phase not only of the concert but of his musical career: his mid-60s late night jam sessions with London-based jazz musicians. Don sets

Donovan Laying Low at Joe's
Donovan Laying Low at Joe's (photo: Dan)

the stage for this new phase by telling the story of his late night jam sessions with jazz musicians in London in 1965, and how sometime before dawn one night, when he alone was still awake, he started composing a song he thought everyone could sing: a song which he then starts to play, and sure enough, everyone in the club began to sing along to his contemporary folk classic, Colours.

Out comes Candy John Carr, the venerable beatnik who played the bongos for Don back in the day, bongos and other percussion in tow, and they perform one of the highlights of the show, Sunny Goodge Street, possibly the first "pop" song to fuse jazz, folk, and mysticism. Then the core members of a pick-up jazz trio assemble on stage, upright bass, keyboards, drums, all local and very professional NYC musicians, and they launch into Sunshine Superman. All of a sudden, you realize that the driving sensibilities behind Sunshine Superman and related songs was this jazz-folk-blues fusion (listen to Bert's Blues on the Sunshine Superman album, for instance), not rock per se: this was a folk singer-songwriter playing with jazz musicians (such as Harold McNair, John Cameron, and others) who formated these songs as rock songs. (Of course, the third confluence at the time was the Eastern blending of sitar and tabla, on Three Kingfishers, Guinevere, and others, but this does not directly play into the musical settings of Beat Cafe, though the Eastern philosophy is evident in the lyrics.)

Some have commented that, invigorating as the recorded performances of Beat Cafe are, they would have been even better were the muscians able to stretch out and jam more. At the concerts, this is exactly what you get: Beat Cafe unplugged as it were. There's room for all the improvisation you want,

Richard Barone reading Howl
Richard Barone reading Howl (photo: Ernie)

and the spirit of the beatnik cafe as a milieu is evoked marvelously. Not only do you get nice extended solos from the trio (keyboards, drums, bass), but also from musicians introduced for several songs: a fine cellist, Julia Kent (who also accompanied Donovan At the Tabernacle, for 3 or 4 songs, and two of the members of Uptown Horns on sax, flute, and slide trombone for several others. Don had to train the lightman on the spot to bring the lights down to nearly off inbetween songs to evoke the feeling of the 50s and 60s beat cafes, but he pulls it off. Mixed in between songs are poetry readings. Don reads Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree, and Richard Barone channels Allen Ginsberg to appear on stage as a young Ginsberg reading a portion of Howl. And, of course, Don performs Do Not Go Gentle by Dylan Thomas, and his own poem-set-to-music Two Lovers, finally recorded officially after 35 years.

Don makes a lot (perhaps too much, you have to judge for yourself) of the importance of the beat cafe scene as the undercurrent which, a few years later, would generate the Summer of Love and Woodstock Nation.

Love Floats
Love Floats (photo: Dan)

He has done his homework, tracing the beat cafes back to their origins in the Bohemian cafes of Paris in the 1840s, up through the Existentialists in the 1920s and the Beats in the 40s/50s/early 60s, so this is anything but a superficial treatment. Of course, he was a youngster then, being 16 when he first started rambling, guitar in hand, and was scarcely 18 when he emerged on the British scene in 1964. That was a seminal year, which also saw the first appearances of Buffy Sainte-Marie (Don performs Universal Soldier in the show), Dick and Mimi Farina, Robin, Bert, and John (Renbourne) in Edinbourgh, and many others, and when Dylan and Baez, already on the scene for a few years, really started to find their creative voices. If Don is riding the wave of the beat cafe scene to mark his own place in pop history, it's at least a valid pose to strike.

There were supposed to be a few more club dates in NY this summer, but Don had visa problems and I think had to return to Ireland. But yes, they are talking about a major tour next year, hitting a lot of cities (I've even communicated with his people about potential clubs in the Boston area).

- Ernie Black






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