BY STEVEN ROSEN
The recordings of Nick Drake, the fragile British singer-songwriter who died in 1974 at age 26, are like cinders floating up from a campfire. They are definitely real, each one packing heat, strength and resilience. But they’re also illusory, a touch of light and warmth that you know can’t last. You admire their beauty, but they also increase your loneliness when they fade out into the blackness. So you remember their impact long afterward.
Joe Boyd, the American-born producer of the first two of Drake’s three albums (and his chief supporter), did as much as anyone to join traditional British folk with rock-informed singer-songwriting through his Witchseason Productions and his work with Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band. And he wrote about it all in 2006’s White Bicycles.
As an offshoot of that, he organized tribute concerts for Drake in Britain, Australia and Italy. This album, released by a Manhattan-based label, selects 15 performances from those shows. Other than brief applause at the very end, you’d never know these were live recordings without the liner notes. One imagines the transfixed audience sitting there in awe, hushed by Drake’s ghostly presence.
While Danny Thompson put together a tasteful band and plays his jazzy double-bass with them, the dynamic coloration of the songs comes from the string arrangements that Robert Kirby (who died in 2009) recreated from his work with Drake.
The singers are free to rework the original arrangements or take a different, more muscular, vocal approach. But respectfulness rules – maybe a tad too much, occasionally, as when Australian singer Shane Nicholson’s jazz-rock version of “Poor Boy” can’t rise above its polite groove and back-up vocals to sound special. And Zoe Rahman’s piano work on an instrumental version of “One of These Things First” (with Thompson) succumbs to a kind of George Winston-like soothing quality after an interesting start.
But those are exceptions. Fortunately, most of the singers feel a kinship to Drake that comes through. They communicate that this is a cause worthy of their most thoughtful interpretive skills.
Irish singer Lisa Hannigan begins “Black Eyed Dog” as if it’s a mournful, solemn dirge and then gets so worked up it becomes an incantation. Teddy Thompson – who tends to get discounted as a musician because of the towering stature of his dad, Richard – sensitively holds and slightly vibrates the syllables while singing Drake’s masterfully melancholy “River Man.” Krystle Warren, an American singer, lets her deep, controlled voice slowly rise with energy and excitement on “Time Has Told Me,” without ever sounding like she’s trying to showboat at the cost of the song’s meaning.
The album’s three best-known singers all have stand-out contributions – Green Gartside’s voice on “Fruit Tree” has both a smooth, high-pitched purity and a shadowy sense of mystery; Vashti Bunyan’s “Which Will” perfectly captures the delicacy of Drake’s recordings; and Robyn Hitchcock’s take on “Parasite” has the eerie, Kafkaesque romanticism – the feeling of entering a private world – of the best of his own songs.
DOWNLOAD: “Fruit Tree,” “Parasite”