Backstage at London’s Royal Albert Hall last night, as the psychedelic folk-rock legend Donovan prepared to go on stage, a woman wheeled a harp hurriedly through a corridor, a Buddhist monk in flowing robes pressed fake pearls into the hands of passing strangers and a security radio crackled to life. “When Jimmy goes on,” said a concerned-sounding male voice to nobody in particular, “it’s going to be very, very loud, okay?”
At that moment Jimmy Page – in a black short-sleeved shirt and black jeans, his shoulder-length gray hair tied in a very small ponytail – sauntered past, head down. Page, and his black Gibson Les Paul Custom, had been called into service to help Donovan, his arranger John Cameron and the London Contemporary Orchestra recreate his classic 1965 album Sunshine Superman virtually note-for-note for the thousands who had crammed into the venue.
“In 1965, Jimmy had just left the Yardbirds and hadn’t started on Zeppelin yet,” said Donovan, who resembled a particularly spry woodland faun in a flowery shirt and waistcoat. “So we hired him to do a session at Abbey Road.” The price, for three hours on the album’s title track, was 13 pounds.
Before Page appeared on stage to reprise his work, ominous spotlights hit the Royal Albert Hall’s ceiling and the orchestra played a portentous low note. Though Page’s cameo was supposed to be a surprise, word had spread and fans were already on their feet. “Hurry up!” yelled one, moments before Page arrived. With legs spread wide, left foot tapping and his head bopping, Page joined the band in a wailing rendition of “Sunshine Superman,” arching his back as he pushed down on his guitar’s gold Bigsby vibrato arm. It was, as predicted, loud.
After an end-of-show encore, and a Page-assisted version of “Mellow Yellow” (with dark accents and blues inflections that made you ponder why he missed that session) the men retreated to a roped-off indoor tent in the bar of the nearby Gore Hotel.
“Though he’s known for his power guitar, Jimmy is a real folk aficionado,” said Donovan, sipping a flute of Beaumont des Crayères champagne. Page, sat to his right amid piles of cushions in the snug tent, agreed. “A lot of my songs were written on the acoustic guitar. And so much of the first album of Led Zeppelin was acoustic too.”