Nick Drake died aged 26 from an overdose of antidepressants, having retreated to his parents’ home in the idyllic-sounding, Albion-evoking village of Tamworth-in-Arden. His music was barely listened to in his short lifetime, and the customary cult around a dead rock star took unusually long to build, stardom being something Drake wasn’t built for, and never achieved.
Joe Boyd, 1960s London’s great folk-rock and underground scene fixer, talent scout, producer and entrepreneur, believed from the start. He discovered and produced Drake, and has put together occasional tribute nights to him, leading to the Way to Blue: A Tribute to Nick Drake live album being launched tonight.
We’re in London’s oldest surviving music hall, a beautiful, dilapidated building which looks dredged up from a Victorian nether-world. Urbane MC Boyd mixes reminiscence, guest performers and laptop excerpts from previous shows. This footage of other, fuller concerts, during a gig already about a man who isn’t here, suggests we’ve come on the wrong night.
Olivia Chaney, a dungaree-wearing young Englishwoman with a bit of Drake’s posh bashfulness, is better. Singing “River Man”, she brings out its writer’s dreamy stasis, the sense of a river flowing on without him. Better still is Nick’s late mother Molly Drake’s “Dream Your Dreams”, sung by Chaney unamplified with cockney music hall inflection. The cult of Molly Drake is just beginning. Watching her hands harmonise on the piano inspired her son’s strange guitar tunings, Boyd observes to folk guitarist Neil MacColl. Such fascinating insights pepper an evening which is more educational than emotional. MacColl’s version of “Time Of No Reply” offers more softly implacable rustic stasis, dipped in autumnal shades.
Robyn Hitchcock duets with Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside on “Free Ride”, blending beautifully. Boyd’s evocative memory of John Cale taking a fast cab to Drake’s Hampstead pad the second he heard his music, and recording “Northern Sky” with him the next day, prefaces Maximo Park singer Paul Smith’s expansive 1980s Northern pop version of the song. Then Green sings Drake’s lyric about posthumous popular acceptance, “Fruit Tree”, in the almost sickly-sweet, creamy voice it takes banks of studio effects for others to match. Boyd finishes by honouring two more dead men who were crucially empathetic to Drake, his string arranger Robert Kirby and photographer Keith Morris. Boyd carries these shades with him, ensuring they’re remembered.