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Donovan, Still on the Beat

Donovan didn't, hitchhiking around the British Isles as a teenage wandering minstrel, playing (and waiting tables) at local pubs and clubs, sleeping on beaches.

"There was some bohemianism in my father -- he was a socialist who read me the stories of the hobo poets Robert W. Service and W.H. Davies. And he was a bit of a wanderer, being a Sagittarius," Donovan recalls. "It was a bit shocking at first when the police brought me back from hitchhiking away down the road at 15. [My parents] were shocked, but they were very happy when I returned as an accepted poet and singer."

As a teenager, Donovan hitchhiked around the British Isles, waiting tables and playing his music in pubs. Now nearly 40 years into his career, he celebrates the bohemian culture on "Beat Cafe." (Andee Nathanson)

Which happened quickly after Donovan, who didn't yet have a record deal, got an unprecedented three-show stint on the popular television show "Ready, Steady, Go!" That got him a deal and within months, "Catch the Wind" went to No. 3 and Donovan found himself sharing the stage with British and American pop and folk royalty. He was 18 years old.

All this leads (albeit circuitously) to Donovan's new album, "Beat Cafe," which pays tribute to creative subcultures stretching back to Paris in the 1850s and including the existentialists of the '30s, the Beats of the '50s and the counterculture of the '60s. And it all happened because Donovan had to look back as he prepared "my canon of work" for next year.

What Donovan calls "a truly intentional reevaluation and rediscovery of the vitality and the influence of bohemian movements on popular culture" was inspired by a long-worked-on autobiography due for publication at the end of 2005. "The book explores before my first hit record, before the Beatles and Dylan and all those who were infiltrating the pop culture with bohemian ideas with the intention of introducing tools of change.

"As I explored the bohemian aspect of the popular culture explosion in the '60s, I found it was very important to laying out 'Beat Cafe' as a preface," he says. "Of course my particular Bohemia would be late '50s and early '60s, so there is a turning of the media dial to 'Beat,' but it really encompasses [the history of] the bohemian movement from 1846, how it informed and supplied the vitality and challenged hypocrisy and greed, usually through one of the arts, and how usually this challenge was resisted and then accepted, and a whole new river of freedom in the arts poured through."

In preparing "Beat Cafe" with double bassist (and longtime associate) Danny Thompson, legendary drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist-producer John Chelew, "I realized we were exploring musically, as well as intellectually and spiritually, the bohemian effect," Donovan explains. Built on a spirit of collective improvisation, the album warmly conjures the smoky jazz, blues and poetry vibe of bohemian cafes in the finger-snapping groove of the title track and "Poor Man's Sunshine," the hipster musical setting of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle," the resurrection of the traditional folk song, "The Cuckoo," and "Shambhala," a meditative homage to pal George Harrison.

"Beat Cafe" is Donovan's first album since 1996's well-received "Sutras," which had been his first American release since 1983's "Lady of the Stars." The hits had stopped coming in 1970, and though he continued to record (13 albums between 1970 and 1983), Donovan seemed content withdrawing to painting, photography and family, and touring occasionally in the '90s.

According to Donovan, long waits between albums have two meanings.

"When I'm inspired -- and [producer] Rick Rubin and I were very inspired to create that meditational, mantric mode on the 'Sutras' album -- then I will present it," he explains. "But I'm basically quite lazy. I never really wanted this to be a steady job. I couldn't see myself doing it week in and week out."

It doesn't hurt, of course, to be living in an 18th-century rectory in Cork, Ireland, with your muse and wife of 35 years, Linda (inspiration of "Catch the Wind" and many other songs), and daughters Oriole and Astrella, who are now learning the family business. (Daughter Ione Skye and son Donovan Leitch, from a previous relationship, gravitated to acting.) Two years ago, Donovan formed Donovan Discs and Donovan Publishing, which he says his daughters will take over "in time." There's plenty of work to do on the autobiography, an accompanying documentary and two box sets, one a six-CD collection from EMI from his early years and another from his American label, Sony.

Meanwhile, Donovan & Family are exploring a 400-tape archive of unreleased studio sessions, demos and concert recordings, "10 to 20 albums worth of material that I had forgotten I'd recorded. This is a job for the daughters," he laughs.

The first fruits of their labor is "Sixty Four" (available from www.donovan.ie), containing some 1964 demo sessions. "It was an amazing discovery because one expects juvenilia," Donovan reports. "It's a bit rough at the edges, but at age 17, I was quite smooth, and I had quite a repertoire rehearsed, from folk blues to English traditional," as well as songs by Tim Hardin and Buffy Sainte-Marie. "I'm fascinated to hear how I was recording quite professionally right from the very first day."

DONOVAN -- Appearing Wednesday at the Birchmere. • To hear a free Sound Bite from Donovan, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

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