The posthumous popularity of Nick Drake, who passed away in 1974 at the age of 26, is no more extraordinary than in Mebourne, where the Way To Blue tribute concert played over three nights.
Having played to a sold out show at the Sydney Opera House, this homage to the long gone troubadour arrived in what must be the Nick Drake capital of the Southern Hemisphere. During his brief career it is doubtful that Drake would have sold as many albums in Australia as tickets to these shows.
The steady rise of interest in Drake’s music is ascribed, in America at least, as being due to a popular Volkswagen TV ad featuring the song ‘Pink Moon.’ But it is much more than that. His praises have long been sung by other musicians, and music fans have sought him out over the decades, attracted by the mystery and then mesmerised by the music.
Drake recorded just three albums, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon, and, while he did not find an audience 40 years ago for his work its influence has been abiding. Those who cite Drake as an inspiration include Peter Buck of REM, The Cure’s Robert Smith (who credited a Drake song for his band’s name), Beck and Lucinda Williams (who recorded one of his songs). In 2004 Drake enjoyed his first charting singles with the release of the Made To Love Magic compilation and, that same year, Brad Pitt narrated a documentary on Drake’s life.
In Melbourne with its strong community radio presence, excellent import stores and long winters, Drake has probably had a higher profile than anywhere else outside of Britain. Which is not to say that he ever reached the mainstream but his legend has been enough to attract what was to some (outside the city) a surprisingly large audience for this superb tribute.
Of course, the talent on display in the Way To Blue evening might have also had something to do with it! Along with the fact that the concert was curated by legendary producer Joe Boyd.
You only have to look at some of the alleged ‘talent’ shows on television to divine another reason for the appeal of Way To Blue. Here was a concert of memorable songs by a charismatic writer and singer who is still able to reach people on a personal level. In contrast to the ‘manufactured’ sounds emanating from TV and commercial radio Drake’s music cut straight to the heart.
This is no maudlin tribute. There is no attempt to exaggerate Drake’s status beyond that as a cult hero; nor is there any effort to make him appear to be some kind of a guru or philosopher. The tribute is to the songs and its success can be measured in the fact that afterwards one felt compelled to rediscover the music because its subtlety and depth was what emerged here.
The first Drake tributes were hatched when Joe Boyd was asked to put together a concert at London’s Barbican more than a decade ago. Drake’s original arranger and close friend Robert Kirby was involved in recreating the string arrangements. (Kirby passed away in 2009 but Boyd still uses his arrangements). Danny Thompson, who worked with Drake, is still on double bass while multi-instrumentalist Kate St John is the musical director. The six-piece basic ensemble is augmented by a local six-piece string section.
For the Australian shows the singing cast of Robyn Hitchcock, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan, Krystle Warren, Scott Matthews and Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti) is also boosted by Melbourne duo Luluc (Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett) and Shane Nicholson. Luluc had been enlisted after sending a copy of their CD and, though they are still relatively unknown even in their home town, were impressive.
The first part of the evening saw the audience a little restrained as Robyn Hitchcock strolled on unannounced to kick off the program and was followed by a procession of the other singers. After Joe Boyd took the stage to read a passage from his excellent bookWhite Bicycles and introduce the cast, the audience relaxed and warmed up. After an interval, there was a noticeable lift in energy as if people had been unsure what to expect but could now revel in the superb musicianship and richness of he singing.
Boyd calls Krystle Warren his ‘secret weapon,’ an astute judgment given her impact on the audience. Unknown in this country when she arrived, Warren left with her name on everyone’s lips. Her version of ‘Time Has Told Me’ was stunning and when she teamed with Shane Nicholson for ‘Pink Moon,’ it almost elicited a standing ovation in itself. Later, Warren gave an impressive a capella reading of ‘I was Made To Love Magic.’
Other highlights included: Lisa Hannigan singing while playing the harmonium on a beautiful reading of ‘Black Eyed Dog; Vashti Bunyan, looking hardly a day older than she was when she was a label mate of Drake, performing ‘Which Will’ and ‘I Remember,’ written by Drake’s mother mum, Molly: Scott Matthews doing ‘River man’ and ‘Day Is Done’; and, Green Gartside’s ‘Hazy Jane 2.’
Robyn Hitchcock helped close the evening with his song ‘I Saw Nick Drake’ – appropriate, given the fact that for just a few hours we were treated to an insight into the lasting appeal of Drake’s music.