sat 24/08/2019

Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, Barbican

Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, Barbican

Great music talents subsume ego for a visionary

The musicians gathered to pay tribute to him, appropriately, were all singular artists too: the question of how returned-from-retirement folkie Vashti Bunyan, 1980s pop star Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, wordy psychedelic revivalist Robyn Hitchcock and jazz pianist Zoe Rahman would all work together provoked an air of intrigued anticipation.

What really set Drake apart in his own time was that, although seen as part of a folk idiom by his connections to John Martyn and the rest of super-producer Joe Boyd's Witchseason stable, he was as much a jazz and post-classical composer as anything else, closer to Dvořák and Debussy, Nina Simone and Charles Mingus than to Fairport Convention or the Incredible String Band. So it was fitting that the show was conceived and put together with the involvement of Boyd and Drake's friend and string arranger Robert Kirby, who died last October.

Krystle_WarrenIt was also good that the show began instrumentally, Rahman liquifying Drake's dense cluster chords in her elegant piano runs as original Drake sideman Danny Thompson's equally jazz-inflected stand-up bass-playing glid beneath the string melodies of “Joey”. Rahman and Thompson would later duet on an even more startlingly lovely “One of These”, this even starker arrangement showing even better just how brilliantly odd and affecting many of the changes in Drake's writing really were.

It's a shame that the singers, at first, were not able to show this off so well. Robyn Hitchcock, a man clearly possessed of no small ego (as well as a series of eye-molesting patterned satin shirts) clicked his Cuban heels and threw rockstar shapes as he spat out “Parasite” in Lennon-like cynical tones, bringing Drake's intense poetry to the fore but trampling musical subtlety under those heels. Green Gartside's voice, conversely, is a subtle instrument, and he acquitted himself well on “Fruit Tree”; his problem, however, was the extreme distinctiveness of his breathy pop-soul style, which made the song his own rather than submitting himself to the song.

A very similar problem afflicted Vashti Bunyan, whose flute-like voice on “Which Will” was beautiful, but made it sound like a Vashti Bunyan song rather than bringing out its innate qualities. And West Midlands newcomer Scott Matthews over-emoted “Place to Be” in that pained, slightly cod-Irish style that has proved so commercial in the hands of modern MOR singers like David Gray and James Morrison.

However, far more sensitive interpretations were provided by young Gibraltarian jazz singer Kirsty Almeida, the husky-voiced androgyne Krystle Warren (pictured, above), and Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. Almeida looked potentially annoyingly kooky in crop-top, patchwork gypsy skirt and bowler hat, but the cool directness of her interpretation of “Cello Song” was a delight, while Warren's treatment of “Time Has Told Me” as a straightforward soul ballad exposed the twists of Drake's songwriting and his compositional similarities to Nina Simone brilliantly, completely stunning the crowd.

Teddy_ThompsonAll these last three came together with the event's musical director Kate St John to create a backing vocal group for Teddy Thompson (pictured). I wasn't familiar with Thompson before, having a natural suspicion for celebrity offspring (he is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson) but his vocal was a revelation – powerful, but again submitting all ego to the subtleties of “Poor Boy”, unequivocally allowing Drake to lead the way. With the joyous harmonies of the backing vocals buoying it up, this rendition ended the first half on an almighty high, a southern-states Al Green-style country/soul feel blending with English pastoralism to create a wonderfully fresh synthesis.

The second half managed to maintain momentum, with many of the singers that hadn't shone redeeming themselves. Gartside joined in a nicely low-key “Way to Blue” with Thompson and Hannigan, Bunyan sang a very peculiar and intriguing song, “I Remember”, by Drake's mother Molly, and Matthews atoned for his earlier over-singing by, after a false start, delivering “Day is Done” with perfect understatement. When Boyd took the stage to deliver his appreciation of Robert Kirby, this too managed to be understated without dropping momentum from the show. Even when the singers were able to really let go, as on Warren's completely a capella “Hanging on a Star” and Hanningan's astounding voodoo blues stomp take on “Black Eyed Dog”, the song came first and the treatment was there to support it.

Even Robyn Hitchcock came good in a solo encore, albeit on a song of his own. It's ironic that while he was unable to tone down his flouncing mannerisms on Drake's songs, he performed the deeply strange and quite gripping “I Saw Nick Drake” dead straight, creating a hushed, even awestruck atmosphere in the auditorium. A final “Voice from a Mountain” capitalised on this atmosphere, turning into something downright mystical as all the event's singers completely gave themselves up to the forlorn otherworldly gospel of Drake's singular songwriting. Although the evening had not been without flagging moments, moments like this were a tribute to how much talent was gathered there, and what can be achieved when the demands of great talents are subsumed to a greater vision.

Below, Green Gartside, Teddy Thompson and Alison Hannigan at a previous Way to Blue show in Glasgow

Check out what else is on at the Barbican Centre this season

Comments

I went to the following night's performance (at Warwick Arts Centre) and agree with every single word the reviewer has written - an absolutely spot on review. A wonderful, wonderful night of Nick's music that started off ominously with some reasonably poor vocal renditions. However by the time the end of the second half approached, there was not a person in the room who wasn't secretly hoping Joe Boyd would come out and announce it was being for it to be extended by at least another 45 mins! The only thing the review misses out is emphasising how fantastic the backing orchestra and musicians were in performing Kirby's score.

I went to the following night's performance (at Warwick Arts Centre) and agree with every single word the reviewer has written - an absolutely spot on review. A wonderful, wonderful night of Nick's music that started off ominously with some reasonably poor vocal renditions. However by the time the end of the second half approached, there was not a person in the room who wasn't secretly hoping Joe Boyd would come out and announce it was being for it to be extended by at least another 45 mins! The only thing the review misses out is emphasising how fantastic the backing orchestra and musicians were in performing Kirby's score.

I too went to the Warwick show, had a fantastic evening. However, I must disagree with the review above in one respect, Scott Matthews the West Midlands 'newcomer', who I've seen four times over the last three years was one of my highlights. The way his voice soars takes your breath away, a cross between Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, not bad eh!

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