LONDON (Reuters) - Nick Drake is an unlikely romantic hero. In the 1970s he was a minor English singer and songwriter who peddled a lyrical brand of introspection that earned him a small but devoted following and few record sales.
Dogged by depression and embittered by his lack of success, he died of an overdose in 1974, virtually unknown and unnoticed.
He was 26 years old and left a meager legacy: a disastrous career as a performer (he once left the stage half-way through a song never to return) and a handful of recordings of his sparsely beautiful songs.
Over the ensuing decades, the enduring potency of these has ensured Drake’s reputation as one of Britain’s great musical talents.
After his unsung career and low-key death, his name continued to be mentioned in the music press, then gradually established artists such as R.E.M. and Paul Weller started crediting Drake as an influence.
Covers of his songs by other singers, such as Lucinda Williams (“Which Will”) and Norah Jones (“Day Is Done”), followed. After Volkswagen used the title track from his final album “Pink Moon” in a TV advertising campaign in 1999, posthumous stardom was sealed and the album achieved platinum status.
American Joe Boyd, at the time a prolific London-based producer and talent-spotter, produced Drake’s three albums and has curated a series of concerts in Britain as a tribute to his erstwhile protégé.
Entitled “ Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake,” a title taken from a song on the singer’s debut album “Five Leaves Left” released in late 1969, the tour is dedicated to Drake’s friend and arranger Robert Kirby, who died last October.
On the London leg of the tour, its stellar cast of musicians and singers performed to a sold-out audience at the Barbican Center at the weekend.
They included acoustic bassist Danny Thompson, a veteran of the folk and jazz scene who played on Drake’s studio recordings, Green Gartside, lead singer of British post-punk darlings Scritti Politti, Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda, Robyn Hitchcock, Scott Matthews, Gibraltarian singer Kirsty Almeida and Vashti Bunyan, who herself fled the music business with a severe case of stage fright after releasing just one album in 1971.
Overlooked by a gigantic arboreal backdrop from the cover of Drake’s posthumous compilation “Fruit Tree,” the singers took turns to present Drake’s songs in their original arrangements as well as stunning new settings, supported by a sympathetic five-piece band and string section.
Teddy Thompson, Gartside and Irish singer Lisa Hannigan tackled “Way to Blue” with the original atmospheric Kirby string arrangement and American Krystle Warren gave us a new interpretation of “Time has Told Me,” using the full range of her soulful contralto to turn it from a jaunty waltz into a belting ballad.
The revelation of the evening was Hannigan’s stunning solo rendition of “Black Eyed Dog,” Drake’s song about depression which existed in its original form only as a stripped-down demo from his final recording session.
This was no exercise in self-pity. Belying her waif-like appearance and beating the stage with her foot, she howled the anger and frustration that lies below the surface of the song’s simple lyrics, to her own accompaniment on the harmonium.
A final “tutti” on the encore “Voice From a Mountain” wrapped up the evening with a fine illustration of the power of Drake’s sensitive and observational songwriting.
In a spoken tribute to Drake, and to his friend and arranger Kirby, Boyd recalled the painfully shy and, at times difficult, young man whose music had floored him when he first heard it.
In his program notes, he referred to his sadness that success eluded Drake in his lifetime, adding: “As great as Nick’s own recordings are, his songs are rich raw material for great singers.”
Editing by Paul Casciato