Donovan at the London Palladium live review

70th birthday bash for the Glaswegian troubadour

A crowd watching a prog gig
(Image: © Katja Ogrin)

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This ‘Beat Café’-themed bash marks a double milestone for Donovan, who is celebrating his 70th birthday and a half-century in the music biz.

Inspired by the Glaswegian-born troubadour’s early days as a coffee bar folkie, the stage is dimly lit and dressed with a small table, wine glasses and pot plants (not that sort). The show’s first half is a kind of beatnik variety performance, including classical guitar pieces from Nils Klöfver and Celtic poetry. The star turn is the kazoo-wielding veteran beat poet Michael Horovitz, whose ode to Mr Leitch features animal noises and is a hoot.

For the second half Donovan dives into the happy clappy There Is A Mountain, followed by the first of many references to his chum Gypsy Dave.

He’s interrupted by the audience, who break into Happy Birthday, but he’s too canny to sink into nostalgia. Sunny pop hits such as Jennifer Juniper intersperse with the downbeat urban mood of Young Girl Blues, the tale of a lonely groupie, in a style later mimicked by keen observers David Bowie and Nick Drake.

More stories follow about the days when England’s newest hitmakers entertained the end-of-the pier crowds, and he recalls making it through the cordon of screaming girls, only to be attacked on stage with water pistols
by members of The Who.

His singing voice wavers, but he compensates with storytelling and by alternating emotions, ranging from longing (Josie, Colours) to protest (Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier).

There is superb accompaniment from his band, led by John Cameron, with King Crimson/Porcupine’s Gavin Harrison on drums and Brendan O’Neill standing in on Danny Thompson’s upright bass. They kick up a storming, funky groove on Barabajagal, but Sunshine Superman itself lacks sparkle without Jimmy Page’s wizardry.

The finale is mesmerising, as Donovan turns to the prog end of his catalogue, building an atmosphere and providing depths that the average quirky 60s pop star cannot reach.

Considering the condition of some of his contemporaries, Donovan has more than survived the trip. He returns for an encore of Mellow Yellow, then skips off to grab a slice of his electrical banana birthday cake. Quite rightly.

Claudia Elliott

Claudia Elliott is a music writer and sub-editor. She has freelanced for BBC Radio 2's Sounds of the 60s, Uncut, History of Rock, Classic Rock and The Blues magazine. She is a 1960s music specialist.