Of course there’s something remarkable about the fact that an evening of music by a singer who died thirty-five years ago and sold a handful of records while alive can fill London’s Barbican, and as I watched Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake it made me think both that Drake was lucky to have such a devoted fan as his producer, Joe Boyd, and also wonder why his songs have found their audience now. Boyd curated the Way to Blue shows this month in Brighton, London, and Warwick (and last year in Birmingham) and, famously, extracted a promise when he sold his Witchseason label to Island Records that Island would keep Drake’s three LPs in print no matter how dismal their sales.
As to why we’ve learnt to love Drake’s songs since his death, I think they were simply out of time when he wrote and recorded them between 1969 and 1972. The times were still fairly optimistic – although they started getting darker just before his death in 1974. (Crosby Stills Nash and Young were the most popular singer-songwriters in the world at the time; Bridge Over Troubled Water was the biggest selling album in the UK in 1970 and 1971). In contrast, his songs are complex, with unfamiliar tunings and chord changes, and are lyrically introspective. And perhaps audiences needed to get used to complexity as well. According to Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles some of that complexity came from his mother, Molly, whose own songs (written for friends and family) also show unexpected chords and tunings. Vashti Bunyan sang one of them at the Barbican, a bittersweet song about memory and distance (“I remembered firelight, you remembered smoke”.)
The format of the Way to Blue shows runs like this: a house band, which included the formidable bass player Danny Thompson, jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, and Neill MacColl (Ewan’s son) on guitar; a string section (Robert Kirby’s string arrangements were integral to many of Drake’s ongs); and a rolling cast of vocalists taking a few songs each. As well as Vashti Bunyan, they included the cult hero Robyn Hitchcock, once of the Soft Boys, Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti), and several younger performers, including Teddy Thompson, who demonstrated that Boyd hasn’t lost his eye for talent.
The singers were slow to engage with the audience – the first few numbers, excellent through they were, felt like watching a rather high class human jukebox – but warmed up after Krystle Warren told a ‘man walks into a bar’ joke. Some stand-out moments: the duet between Zoe Rahman and Danny Thompson on an improvisatory instrumental version of One of These Things First; Krystle Warren’s extraordinary gospel-jazz infused performance of Time Has Told Me, which made me understand why Joe Boyd once hoped to get Roberta Flack to cover it; Lisa Hannigan’s interpretation of Black Eyed Dog, accompanying herself on what looked like a harmonium, the band driving the whole thing along as relentlessly as Fairport’s Matty Groves; and Scott Matthews’ version of Riverman, filled with Rahman’s rippling piano. Some of these were new arrangements by the show’s musical director, Kate St John.
There were mistakes, inevitably. Green Gartside started one of the obscurer songs by admitting that he had forgotten most of the words in Brighton the previous night, then proceeded to sing it perfectly. Teddy Thompson, on the other hand, though much the most charismatic singer on show, lost his way completely in one of his songs. He stopped, apologised, and started again. It didn’t matter.