The folk legend gives a songwriting masterclass in Belfast
'To be a legend and still alive,' Donovan tells the sold-out crowd in the Olympia Concert Room of the Holiday Inn in Belfast on opening night of the tenth Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. 'A light is shining on all my work. What else can I ask for?'
No friend of modesty, the Scottish singer-songwriter still feels it’s up to him to remind people of his worth despite being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 and his upcoming induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2014, along with fellow 1960S luminary Ray Davies of The Kinks.
The audience at this concert don’t need to be reminded of his talent, though. These are his people, and they sing and clap along to the songs that made him famous back in the halcyon days, when a young Donovan Leitch released a string of hit singles and albums which saw him proclaimed as one of the leading lights of British music.
His star shone bright for five years or more before the changing times and musical landscape led to him taking time out from music whilst his contemporaries forged ahead into a fresh decade.
The Beatles may have split, but a solo John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Wings maintained their popularity, whilst The Rolling Stones reached new, diabolical heights with Exile on Main Street, before settling into a long run of mediocre records and record breaking concert tours. Donovan and his music was left behind, an artefact trapped in amber of the psychedelic times.
Donovan continued to make records in the decades since. His latest, Shadows of Blue, is for sale at the merchandise stand after the gig, but tonight he focuses on his classic songs.
Now 67-years-old, Donovan relies on echo and reverb to carry his voice, though his guitar playing is a strong as ever. After welcoming the crowd and speaking of his pleasure at performing at the festival, he begins with ‘Catch the Wind', the song which made him a star and led to him being feted as a British Bob Dylan.
After a beautiful rendition of WB Yeats’ poem ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree', set to his own music, Donovan talks about the influence of Scottish and Irish music in American folk, how the immigrants to America from these shores brought their songs with them and laid the foundations of popular song, which would eventually become bluegrass, rockabilly and country.
The first half of his set is mostly made up of songs from his first two albums, What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid and Fairytale. Shawn Phillips’ ‘The Little Tin Soldier’ is followed by ‘Donna, Donna', a song he learned from Joan Baez. 'I guess I fell a little in love with Joan Baez,' he tells us. 'She was breaking up with Bob Dylan at the time so I thought I had a chance.' He talks of how they met when Dylan toured England in 1965. 'She sang like an angel but had a mouth like a market girl.'
The first sing-a-long of the evening happens during ‘Colours', and Donovan is pleased that the crowd sing in tune (as well as clap in time). He recalls his early days singing in the folk clubs of St. Albans. 'All the young beatnik boys and girls would hang out in a place called The Cock,' he says, eliciting laughter in the audience. 'I know,' he laughs. 'It’s a loaded word.'
He waxes lyrical about the beautiful girls in miniskirts with long, silken hair that would come to see him play. Mid-way through telling us about a girl called Geraldine he breaks off to let the technicians know that 'my microphone keeps slipping. It’s slowly making its way to my private parts.' The problem fixed, he continues his story, leading into a beautiful rendition of ‘The Ballad of Geraldine'.
After a solo take on ‘Jennifer Juniper’, Donovan tells us about his roots, how he had Irish grannies on both sides of his family, one a Kelly the other an O’Brien. 'I used to sit under the table at parties when I was a child. The women would bring the sandwiches in. The men would be drinking too fast. I heard all the songs, the Irish songs, the Rebel songs, Scottish songs, including this.' He plays the ancient Scottish ballad ‘Young But Daily Growing' with a a wistful look on his face.
A strong rendition of ‘Universal Soldier’ reminds us that Donovan also sang protest songs. 'It wasn’t all fun and games in the 60s. There was a war going on. There’s always a bloody war going on.'
For the remainder of the set we are treated to a run of Donovan’s late 60s hits. ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ is followed by ‘Wear Your Love Like heaven’ and ‘Lalena', one of his most affecting love songs.
He reminds us you can write a song about anything before singing one of his silliest, yet catchiest songs, ‘I Love My Shirt', which brings laughter from the audience, before finishing with a run of three classic hits, ‘Sunshine Superman', ‘Season of the Witch’ and ‘Mellow Yellow'. The crowd sing along to each one. Thanking his fans for coming to see him, including a fan called Chris who flew all the way from Key West, Florida, he encores with ‘Atlantis’ before finally taking his leave.
The following lunchtime, Donovan takes a songwriting workshop. Three dozen or more lucky songwriters with pen and paper in hand are given a masterclass in songwriting tips. He talks about the importance of learning the classic ballad forms – the 'mystery of melody' from basic chords, which make up hundreds of songs – from the folk staple ‘Barbara Allen’ to Neil Sedaka’s ‘Donna'.
Donovan tells tales of songwriting sessions with Paul McCartney. 'If Paul McCartney fell on a piano by the time he picked himself up he’d have written three songs,' before recalling how McCartney played him a song that began with very different words – 'Ulla Na Tunge picked up his pipe…' – which became ‘Eleanor Rigby', and how he helped McCartney with a word or two for ‘Yellow Submarine'.
In between snatches of songs (‘All I Have To Do Is Dream', ‘Dear Prudence', his own ‘Sunny Goodge Street’) Donovan stresses the importance of practice, of learning your favourite singer's songs, of developing your lyrical skills by copying, adapting, rewriting.
He talks about how you should be always open to learning new things, about teaching John Lennon and Paul McCartney the clawhammer guitar style that led to their fresh direction on The White Album, and how the four basic forms – the ballad, latin pop, the rhythm structure form and the A minor descent – are the basis of all popular music.
He takes questions from the group, answers with examples from his own and others’ catalogues, and finishes the hour-long masterclass with one of his own songs, the title track to his new album, developed from a simple phrase he read in a book.
Donovan is an engaging teacher, confident in his own abilities, proud of what he’s achieved in his life of song, but still open to learning and developing his craft. As he himself said at the concert the night before, he is 'a legend, and still alive'.
The Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival continues until March 9.