I helped manage the Kent State Folk Festival for about 10 years, a gig that was filled with triumphs and “artistic successes” – our term for well-intentioned shows that didn’t really connect with audiences.
Working with the wide diversity of artists the festival presents also gave me a wealth of backstage tales and stories of random fun and strange moments.
One of the most memorable festival concerts I worked on was Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan’s 2005 performance at the Kent Student Center ballroom at Kent State University.
Donovan will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday at Cleveland’s Public Hall, along with Guns N’ Roses, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, the Small Faces/Faces, the late Laura Nyro and overlooked backing bands the Famous Flames, the Crickets, the Comets, the Blue Caps, the Midnighters and the Miracles. The late blues guitar great Freddie King will be inducted as an early influence.
The fact that Donovan’s Kent State concert even happened was surprising. 2005 was a big year for the artist forever linked with sunny psychedelia, due to a remarkable string of hits in the 1960s. Sony Records released Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan, a four CD/DVD box set in September of that year, and St. Martin’s published his autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, later in November. Donovan, who does not tour frequently, also announced he would perform a string of dates in America.
I thought he would be a real coup for the Kent State Folk Festival. Though known for big pop hits such as Sunshine Superman, Hurdy Gurdy Man and Mellow Yellow, Donovan clearly fit the folk category, as the troubadour was tagged with the “new Dylan” label for his early work. Since he rarely tours, it would fill one of the festival’s goals of presenting something special. WKSU General Manager Al Bartholet agreed, and gave me the green light to attempt to book him.
As is often the case, it turned out not to be that easy. The festival made a generous offer for a solo performance, but Donovan’s agents did not respond for weeks. Once we did receive word that we might be able to book the show, we started to hear about a possible cancellation of the tour. We were on pins and needles, as the weeks stretched on while the festival still did not have a headliner.
We finally got the go ahead for the show, and tickets sold out quickly. But we were still worried. Donovan canceled nearly all of his concerts leading up to the Kent State show, but for reasons I still don’t know he kept the Kent gig on his schedule.
Nearly 1,000 fans packed the Kent Student Center Ballroom on Nov. 19, 2005. I met folks who traveled from Texas, Michigan, Florida and New York to witness the rare show. The Kent State performance was magical. Clearly in good spirits, the freewheeling singer shared stories about his early vagabond days, the swinging 1960s and hanging with the Beatles in India. He also discussed his views on meditation, peace and love in between his long string of hits.
When the show came to a close, the crowd gave Donovan an enthusiastic standing ovation. There was only one major hit the rapt audience was waiting for. Backstage, Donovan took a couple of brief sips of wine before he headed back on the stage for the encore.
As he began to play Mellow Yellow, a number of fans moved closer to the stage. One lady had a bouquet of flowers in her hand, and Donovan encouraged her to “Come on up here.”
But the fans took that as an invitation for everyone to get on stage! We had very limited security at the show; it was just me and a couple of other guys. As more than 50 fans crowded around Donovan, I was in a bit of a panic. I decided things were past the point of no return and hoped for the best.
The enthusiastic fans sang and danced, but they were very well behaved as they surrounded the singer. Donovan seemed genuinely touched by the moment. Backstage after the show, he said to me, “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
This Saturday’s ceremonies and concert will be the second time the Rock Hall inductions will be held in Cleveland. The city received widespread praise for its handling of the 2009 honors, which included a week of events leading up to the inductions. A new agreement with the Rock Hall’s New York Foundation calls for the prestigious ceremonies to be held every three years in the rock and roll capital.
This week, rock hall officials announced that Donovan will perform with John Mellencamp at Saturday’s Public Hall festivities.
But I doubt you will be able to join him on stage like the lucky fans in Kent did seven years ago.