“Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound.
It can never flourish
‘til its stock is in the ground
So men of fame
Can never find a way
‘til time has flown
Far from their dying day.”
- Nick Drake, 1969
In 1974, Nick Drake died of an overdose, leaving three largely unnoticed albums, and his tragedy. He was 26.
In 1999, his song “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial. His cult following was reinvigorated by a new generation of the curious and enchanted. His work, at last, began to receive the attention it deserved.
In 2010 and 2011, Drake’s producer and friend, Joe Boyd, curated a series of concerts in his honor, featuring some of the original arrangements by the late Robert Kirby, and fronted by vocalists Boyd hand-picked to perform his songs.
This album is a chronicle of their tribute to him, the first of its kind, I think, and I was eager to see what these covers would uncover in Drake’s music. This kind of celebration is a traditional mark of respect for great songwriters, and Drake was certainly one of those. But he hated live performance. His place was in the studio, and accordingly, his recordings have a unique and timeless quality that could never be replicated. In that knowledge, could Boyd, who had been so close to those recordings, find a new approach to the songs themselves?
Superficially, the songs that seem most changed are those from “Pink Moon”. The original record has often been called Drake’s best, because it shows him at his most bare and honest, armed with only his guitar. Here, we see how the songs might have sounded with his band behind them. A lush string arrangement opens up “Things Behind the Sun”, letting it grow from the width of a small room to the whole English countryside. Nick Drake’s original bass player, Danny Thompson, imbues “Place to be” with a momentum which subtly but completely brightens its mood. And “Parasite” is underscored by shivers and trills and drones of threatening psychedelia.
Of course, the musicianship is not the selling point of most tributes. This is a shame, because Danny Thompson and pianist Zoe Rahman’s jazz duet of “One of These Things First” is one of the best things on the album. But what people really want to hear about are the vocalists. And Boyd has brought together an interesting set of voices. The likes of Teddy Thompson and Drake’s contemporary Vashti Bunyan are probably familiar to folk fans world-wide, but for the most part, Boyd has avoided the big names. It seems, in a way, that this is as much a showcase of Drake’s best students as it is of the man himself.
This is most apparent in Australia’s Luluc, whose beautiful 2008 album “Dear Hamlin” wore its influences on its sleeve. It would be easy to say that Teddy Thompson’s reverently faithful “River Man” or Scott Matthews’ tender rendition of “When the Day is done” sound vocally most like Drake. But his hushed, desperately unaffected singing style comes so naturally to Zoe Randell that I involuntarily imagine her as a distant relative.
The most important message of this compilation, however, comes from performances such as Shane Nicholson’s “Poor Boy”, which lends a gruff, country drawl to the deconstructed gospel styling of the original. Or “Black-Eyed Dog” by Lisa Hannigan, whose quivering fragility amps up the quiet anger of the original, until it becomes a vicious, frantic Irish dance-off with the devil.
Drake, even at his most raw, never had the confidence to reveal his emotions. He was too meticulous, too afraid. But these recordings are full of confidence. All these artists have loved and cherished his songs in a way that he never could. And they perform all the emotion he articulated for them. He wouldn’t have performed “Which Will” with Vashti Bunyan’s soft, knowing smile, nor could he have imagined Luluc and Lisa Hannigan’s campfire harmonies in “Saturday Sun”. He could never have overcome his humility for long enough to perform “Time Has told Me” as a full-blown gospel song. But Krystle Warren could, and the result is breath-taking. If her version had been made in the 70s, it would have taken every wedding in the world by storm.
The album ends, as I had hoped, with a rousing version of “Pink Moon”. Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren let their voices weave together in joyful abandon. The band is lively, playful, giving the song a steady, triumphant gait. And when that piano break comes, it’s not so much a moment of quiet revelation as peaceful communion and understanding.
In this tribute, Joe Boyd, his band, and all the performers he chose proved their love and appreciation of Nick Drake’s music. Sometimes it was amplified, or simplified, but always for the sake of drawing out its heart. And that’s what makes this a worthy and welcome celebration of his songwriting.
Would the man himself have approved? I couldn’t say. I certainly couldn’t imagine even a sixty-year-old Nick Drake performing so comfortably, if at all. But maybe, I could see him in the audience, quietly enjoying the fruits of his fame.