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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1724

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Various Artists: Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake
by George Graham

(Storysound Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/24/2013

History is full of artists who achieved little success during their lifetimes, but later became famous, or highly influential or both after death. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison of the Doors had a degree of fame during their lives, but became icons after their passing. In other cases, that fame took a while to develop, with the artists being virtually unknown in life. The epitome of the unknown artist becoming very influential after death is Nick Drake, a British folk-oriented singer-songwriter who released three brilliant albums in his short lifetime that were all commercial failures in their day, but who has become ever more influential with time. Numerous artists from a wide variety of styles from alternative rock to straight jazz have cited Nick Drake as an influence or recorded Drake's compositions.

Ironically, it was a 1999 Volkswagen commercial that helped to put Nick Drake on the map, some 25 years after his death in 1974 at the age of 26.

While there have been a growing number of cover versions of Nick Drake's harmonically complex but brooding compositions, a tribute album has just been released of Drake's songs done by a variety of artists. They range from people who had worked with him in life to those who had not been born until well after Drake's death. Normally, my reaction to such an album project would be skepticism at best -- tributes to dead rock musicians are more often than not transparent attempts to exploit interest in the artist -- but this recording, called Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake was produced by Joe Boyd, who was the original producer of Drake's first two albums, and who was about as close to the terribly aloof artist as someone in the music business could be. And rather than being a typical tribute album with different bands coming into the studio to do their own treatments of the artist's songs, this CD is taken from a series of live concerts in which various guest vocalists play with a more-or-less constant band that featured Danny Thompson, the original bassist on Drake's albums and original string arrangements by Drake's classmate at Cambridge University, Robert Kirby.

Joe Boyd provides in-depth notes in the CD booklet explaining how around 2000, he was asked to help put together a live concert and benefit featuring Drake's music. Boyd considered that a one-off affair, but eight years later the idea was revived for a weekend event in Birmingham, England of "English Voices" and he and Kate St. John, who was a member of the band Dream Academy and had a wide-ranging musical background, began work on what would become the performances leading to this CD. They decided on the constant band, including Danny Thompson on bass and Neill MacColl, son of folksingers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, on guitar. Boyd approached a number of artists, some well-known and some less so to serve as singers, from Robin Hitchcock to Vashti Bunyan, who had worked had known Drake back in the day and had a similar experience with commercial failure and then revival of interest.

A series of concerts ensued, with different vocalists depending on who was available, in London, Liverpool, Rome, Sydney and Melbourne Australia, among other places. The new CD has fifteen tracks taken from concerts in London in 2010 and in Melbourne in 2011. The London recordings were taken from a BBC show. Among the vocalists on the CD are Teddy Thompson, son of Fairport Convention founder Richard Thompson, Lisa Hannigan, and Green Gartside, of the 1980s pop band Scritti Politti plus some emerging artists including British singer-songwriter Scott Matthews, Australian Shane Nicholson, and American Kristle Warren. Also from Australia is the duo called Luluc, with the vocals of Zoe Randall, who interestingly comes as close to anyone on the album in sounding like Nick Drake. Producer Boyd says he set out to get vocalists who would not sound like Drake, but the comparisons are inevitable.

And that is perhaps the crux of the dilemma of this album. Though Nick Drake's songs were by and large excellent compositions, they are forever associated in fans' minds with Drake's unique performing style -- his one-of-a-kind quiet, smoky vocals, and the often subtly intricate guitar work that seemed to draw as much on jazz and even bossa nova as on folk. And his recordings, especially his first two albums were so perfectly produced that the comparisons are inevitable, and fan will always be asking themselves is this is good as Nick Drake himself? In a live concert situation, when of course, the artist no longer around, such tribute performances can be a wonderful experience, but on record, the comparisons to Drake's original recordings are always a factor. This being a live recording mitigates that some, but this CD has no audible audience reaction until the very end, and often does sound like a studio recording.

The generous 67 minute 15-song CD opens with a nice version of Things Behind the Sun from Drake's last album Pink Moon, with Zoe Randall of the Australian group Luluc providing the lead vocal. She embodies the dusky alto vocal style of the late Sandy Denny, and is remarkably reminiscent of Nick Drake. <<>>

Taking a somewhat different vocal approach is Scott Matthews who does Place to Be also from Pink Moon. The original album was just Drake by himself, so the arrangement on this recording is more elaborate than Drake's. <<>>

One of the Drake's jazzier songs was Poor Boy from his second album Bryter Layter. The version here is song by Shane Nicholson, from the London performance. Though it's generally tastefully done, it's one of those occasions when one asks why try to improve on the original. <<>>

Alternative pop star Robyn Hitchcock makes his appearance on another song from the Pink Moon album Parasite. Though I have never been much of a fan of Hitchcock, I think this treatment is interesting for being so much different from the solo acoustic original version. This arrangement features a vaguely psychedelic guitar and Kate St. John's prominent English horn. <<>>

One less-than-perfect match is the version of one of my favorite Nick Drake songs, the wonderfully melancholy Fruit Tree. Green Gartside's quirky vocal might have worked better if the accompaniment was not an exact recreation of the original arrangement on Drake's debut album Five Leaves Left. <<>>

Teddy Thompson makes his appearance on another of my favorite Drake songs River Man also from Five Leaves Left, which lately has been recorded by a number of jazz artists. Again, the original string arrangements by Henry Robinson are part of the performance. Thompson does the song justice. <<>>

The one considerable departure from the Nick Drake sound is Lisa Hannigan's version of one of the more obscure Drake songs, Black Eyed Dog which was appeared on the Time of No Reply compilation. One might have a hard time believing it was a Nick Drake song, but at least it was taken in a different direction than the original solo performance. <<>>

The CD ends with one of its stronger tracks. Pink Moon, the song that was used in the car commercial that was probably most people's first exposure of Nick Drake, here is done by Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren in an almost rocky arrangement. <<>> It even gets into a bit of a jam toward the end. <<>>

Though Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake was produced by Drake's original producer Joe Boyd, and features a couple of people who knew the late singer-songwriter, I still have mixed feelings about the concept of the album. A live performance of the music done by the combination of the tasteful backing musicians in many cases using the original arrangement, with a diversity of guest vocalists, would undoubtedly be a memorable event. But once you put this onto a CD the inevitable comparisons arise to Drake's iconic original recordings of the songs. In case you haven't guessed, I'm a big Nick Drake fan and have known his music since it was first released in the US around 1970, so that probably affects my judgement. And perhaps a younger generation of fans who may recognize some of the names on this CD may be further inspired to explore Drake's music, so that could also be helpful. But now almost 40 years after his untimely death, Nick Drake's recordings are still quite remarkable and have proven not only timeless but an inspiration for new generations of musicians.

Our grade for sound quality on Way to Blue is close to an "A." It is a live recording, so it lacks some of the sonic perfection of a good studio recording, and Danny Thompson's trademark acoustic bass, which has graced 40 years of English folk recordings including Drake's original, the Pentangle and many others, sounds a little thin here. But the recording generally has nice clarity and the dynamic range is decent.

With all the interest in Nike Drake's music in recent years, an album like this seemed inevitable. It's good that it was done with the sensitivity and level of quality that marks Way to Blue.

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