Could the prospect of trying to cover a 40-year career in concert to complement a new biography (“The Hurdy Gurdy Man”) and box set (“Try for the Sun” on Sony Legacy) be so daunting that an artist just doesn’t quite figure out how to connect the dots? Instead of telling compelling stories about his adventures, Donovan, a defining figure of the 1960s folk-rock movement, wants his audience to know he’s been active in the 30 or so years since radio last gushed over his latest single. Marred by an iffy sound system and a lead guitarist whose sole inspiration is Carlos Santana, Donovan needs to rethink his version of “Storyteller.”
“The ’70s …,” he would remark often during his 2½-hour show at the Wilshire Ebell, suggesting that the decade is a buried chest of unheard treasures. But as he played these mostly unfamiliar tunes, he revealed what most fans already suspected: “Cosmic Wheels” was his best song in the decade.
This Scotsman, who traveled in circles that included Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix yet rarely escaped their shadows, lost his way once psychedelia became passe. The ’70s works lacked the trippy inventiveness of his melodies and wordplay that distinguished songs such as “There Is a Mountain,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Lelana,” all three of which received divine perfs Tuesday. The work of his second decade, filled with simple rhymes and mundane countryish balladry, lacks the charm of even Cat Stevens.
Some of the obscurities were cool to hear (“Epistle to Dippy,” “Riki Tiki Tavi”), and the inclusion of tunes from his recent disc “Beat Cafe” made it clear he has some artistry left. But his odd stream-of-consciousness stories befuddled more than they clarified.
That poetic banter was a connective tissue on his last tour in which he was detailing the roots of the Beat poets. Here it never led to a coherent whole, one that would elevate Donovan to a deserved pedestal among the greats of his era.
Donovan performs Dec. 7 and 9 at Gotham’s Society for Ethical Culture.