Philharmonic Hall 17/11/15

It’s dark in the Phil, and after 15 minutes’ stage-crossing by shadowy figures the audience stops craning its necks at every roadie and usher to approach the microphone, giving the last of them the element of surprise. From Haydn to Malick, fiat lux has been depicted with orchestral tuttis and effervescent electronics – suddenly drenched in blue, Donovan does it with a harmonica. And it’s good.

He sits in a lotus position, channelling an ersatz yogi with a guitar (the harmonica doesn’t feature beyond opener The Sun Is A Very Magic Fellow). Stripped of bongos and sitars, his folk roots emerge in hippier numbers like Jennifer Juniper and Sunshine Superman as much as in ballad The Alamo and genuinely traditional material. The Trees They Do Grow High, a British folk song, stands out.

Donovan is clearly prolific, and shines brightest during album cuts and unrecorded songs. Of the latter, The Promise is marked out with nimble guitar-playing. Sadly, his voice doesn’t share his fingers’ longevity. He strains during Sadness, four songs in, and a disappointing trend is established.

This is a 50th anniversary tour, with patter collected on the way. Tame anecdotes about the Beatles, drug busts, and constant references to a “Gypsy Dave” – not a member of the travelling community, I suspect – sound so over-rehearsed they could be a voiceover, recited in a Woganesque non-accent from nowhere. It gets worse. A paean to 1969’s skywards gaze descends into a song about the bathroom habits of astronauts. Truly, it’s hard to describe the awkward horror of remaining seated while all around aging hippies give a standing ovation to a scatological meditation called The Intergalactic Laxative.

Equally bizarre is the decision to mime along to Mellow Yellow. This is a song that’d be best sung cross-legged on a cushion, if only to put a guitar in Donovan’s hands. It’d stop him “lighting” and handing round that invisible joint to those who are literally dancing in the aisles (I didn’t realise this actually happened), and the less said about where he waggles his microphone, the better.

Let’s be perfectly clear: this is not a hatchet job on a terrible gig. It’s not even a bad gig. Bands have done far worse trying to revitalise their material over the decades, whereas Donovan clearly isn’t tempted to fiddle with tried and tested interpretations. Besides, there are perhaps five people not having the time of their life. Some of these fans have seen Donovan 10 times in as many years – they know what they’re getting. On a night that relies heavily on nostalgia, that adage about the 60s comes to mind: if you can remember it, you weren’t there (man). That’s no guarantee you missed much, but Donovan has enough aides-memoire in song form to be an authentic relic of a colourful decade – mostly yellow, it seems.

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