Donovan: Beat Cafe
Donovan was one of the kings of the late ’60s. His trippy blend of folk and jazz was very cool. Unfortunately the transition into the more mainstream rock sounds of the ’70s was not as successful. He gradually faded throughout the decade and basically disappeared in the ’80s. Even when contemporaries like Deep Purple, John Fogerty and CSNY resurfaced, Donovan remained in seclusion.
Then out of the blue he cut a new album in 1996. Produced by Rick Rubin (Who I think produced about half the albums released in that era), “Sutras” was a very mature, subdued and personal artistic statement. For someone willing to take the time to penetrate the depths of the music it was very satisfying. But in the age of Smashing Pumpkins and Coolio, “Sutras” went by largely unnoticed. Donovan himself remained in the shadows.
Eight more years came and went until another new album was released. This time Donovan went back to his inspirations from the classic beat poets, grabbed producer/keyboardist John Chelew, old compatriot Danny Thompson on double bass, Jim Keltner on drums and recorded one of the best albums of his career.
“Beat Cafe” is not a return of the flower power troubadour, but a cool jazzy homage to smoke filled coffee houses, snapping fingers and bongo drums. He even did what he called an “underground launch” of the album in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood (home of City Lights Bookstore and famous stomping ground of beat poets like Jack Kerouak and Allen Ginsburg). Before you judge, believe me this is no gimmick. Donovan was always a beatnik at heart so it suits him. If you remember “Bleak City Woman” he was also quite good at it. Combine that with a touch of eastern philosophy, a hint of hippie, infectious grooves and true inspiration, it all adds up to some very cool Donovan music.
The smooth spacy groove of “Love Floats” gets you snapping your fingers as Donovan whispers. “Poor Man’s Sunshine” takes it up a notch and leads to the purest beat of the title track where is asked the question, “Can a cat think?” The little koan is foreshadowing for such things as “Yin My Yang” and “The Question.” The basic combo of musicians works seamlessly and is the perfect approach to the compositions. Even if Mr. Leitch wasn’t the front man, the remaining trio would thrill any crowd in a jazz lounge.
There are other explorations in the form of traditional folk in “The Cuckoo” and “Lover O Lover” appeared in a different form on his last original album from the early 80’s (of course no one heard it). The highlight for me is a track that truly transports the listener to the clichéd beatnik coffee house. Donovan does a dramatic reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle” accompanied by bass and brushed drums. Cool daddy-o.
“Beat Cafe” may seem archaic in its approach but it does not lack in relevancy. The music is timeless, accessible and has broad appeal. Donovan is a talent that was separated from us for far too long, and it is good to have him back. He may not be as prolific but he is working again. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of some of the best music he’s ever recorded.
P.S. Donovan’s new multimedia project “Ritual Groove” should be available soon (if it isn’t already).
Donovan – guitar, vocals
Danny Thompson – bass
Jim Keltner – drums
John Chelew – keyboards