Monday, April 24, 2017

Season of the Witch

Call this a guilty pleasure song, I guess. Or maybe it's a really really good song. I mean, I think it's a really really good song. So that should count for something, right?

I've always been a little funny when it comes to Donovan. I tend to err on the side of appreciating him more than I think others of my generation do. Which is to say, people who were nowhere close to being alive when many of his biggest songs like "Catch the Wind," "Mellow Yellow," "Sunshine Superman" and the song I am writing about today were written. And barely alive when his career peaked and started to fade by the late 60s. But some obvious annoyances notwithstanding, like his tendency towards overwroughtedness in his voice and his seeming penchant to take himself way too seriously at times, he was a pretty solid songwriter who had a fine understanding of melody and was never afraid to take chances. So sue me. I like Donovan!

(Actually, don't sue me if you don't have to. My kid starts college this fall and that's really the last thing I need).

So. "Season of the Witch." Yeah, guilty pleasure or not, I love it. So there it is.

No, I don't know what's talking about or singing about. His talent for writing sweet and moving lyrics (like the lovely and aforementioned "Catch the Wind") kinda takes a vacation in this one. ("When I look out my window, so many sites to see" is the kinda line that would merit an "Incomplete - please elaborate" if turned in for a high school English class. And the rest of it just seems to be filler until we get to the title line.) That annoying voice thing comes back, sounding like someone trying to sound grown up as he orders his meal in a really fancy restaurant.

The music, however, is outstanding. It starts with these haunting, twangy guitar strands that seem to lean more on a band like the Yardbirds than on the usual Donovan hippy-dippy-trippy stuff. There's a seething nature to the way the bass lopes menacingly underneath it, like an animal waiting to strike. Even those damn lyrics and that damn singing voice don't get in the way of the music setting an eerie stage. And when Mr. Leitch then goes up a register and actually "sings" for realsies the way we know he can, the song starts to get fully realized. It's almost like he's setting a trap and waiting patiently for it to be tripped as the music builds behind him.

But then, oh man. Once he gets to the "chorus," repeating the "stitch" line three times before that spring-loaded trap releases and we are hit like a right-cross with the payoff: "Must be the SEASON OF THE WIII-III-ITCH," all bets are off. The song becomes as commanding and overpowering as any of that era. And dammit if that isn't a great rock-n-roll moment right there. It's got everything we love about music. Tension, mystery, delightful moments of interplay and one mother of a punchline. And at each chorus, when Donovan employs this time-tested trick, it works like gangbusters; every time the song reaches its highest height with the thrice-repeated title line, it's as fresh and startling as the first time we've heard it. Well done, sir. Well done.

Lastly there's the guitar. Which starts as forboding little fills but when Donovan rips out that "witch" line, there's some awesome guitar work going on alongside it, a jangle that seems to be the marriage of blues and electric folk and seems to be borrowed from the likes of the Animals and (here's that band again and, hint hint, remember I said this) the Yardbirds. It's some serious chops and technique on display here, and honestly, I didn't think Donovan had it in him; nothing he's done before or after really reminds me of this kinda playing. I mean, he seems to be a fine acoustic guitarist, but this doesn't sound like him.

Because as I have now learned, it isn't. It's this little fella here:

Mayhap this was common knowledge to some, that Jimmy Page played on many of Donovan's tracks during this time (including "Sunshine Superman") but it was news to me. I mean, I knew he was a coveted sessions player in his pre-Yardbirds days and even during, but never ever knew this was his handiwork until very recently. And I was as delighted as I was fershimmeled. Huh!

So there we go. Great rock-n-roll, as least as far as I'm concerned. Guilty pleasure or not. And regardless of whatever the hell he's talking about.

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