I was born to love no one
No one to love me
Only the wind in the long green grass
The frost in a broken tree.

I was made to love magic
All its wonder to know
But you all lost that magic
Many many years ago…

I was born to sail away
Into a land of forever
Not to be tied to an old stone grave
In your land of never.

A superb show last night at the Phil: Way to Blue: the Songs of Nick Drake, the celebration concert assembled by Joe Boyd.  This was pretty much the same show that BBC4 filmed at the Barbican and screened earlier this year.  Though it took a little while to hit its stride (largely due to the format of having one singer after another walk on stage and sing their song, unannounced) by half-time things were really rolling, and the second half was stunning. Overall, this was one of the best concerts of the year.

During his lifetime Nick Drake found little mainstream success, but since his tragic death at the age of 26 in 1974 he has been revered as one of the most influential and important English songwriters of the last 40 years. Way To Blue, is an evening celebrating his talent, curated by producer Joe Boyd, who popped out on several ocassions – to introduce each member of the stellar line-up, and to recount key moments from the time when he worked with Drake as his producer.  Boyd argues that “Nick’s music was ahead of its time and outside of its time”.

Nick Drake

Because of the high regard in which Drake is now held, Boyd has been able to bring together a brilliant line-up of musicians to perform his songs.  The show features a string quartet who recreate the original orchestrations arranged by the late Robert Kirby, under the direction of  Kate St John who plays accordian, as well as cor anglais and other woodwind instruments.  Then there’s the excellent Danny Thompson on double bass, who played on Drake’s albums, and Teddy Thompson, son of Richard who also played with Drake. The core of this superb house band is completed with Martin Barker (drums), Neill MacColl (guitar) and Zoe Rahman (piano). The vocal contributions come from Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Robyn Hitchcock, Scott Matthews, Karine Polwart, Teddy Thompson, and Krystle Warren.

Vashti Bunyan was the weakest link, making fragile and nervous contributions in ‘Which Will’ and the first verse of  ‘Voice from the Mountain’.  Robyn Hitchcock performed ‘Parasite’ and ‘Free Ride’ and contributed his own song, ‘I Saw Nick Drake’ as an encore. Neil MacColl, who embroidered each song with his delicate guitar work, came centre stage just once to give us a consummate rendition of  ‘Northern Sky’.  Green Gartside of Scritti Politti gave us a spell-binding version of ‘Fruit Tree’, while Karine Polwart sang a compelling version of the haunting ‘Black Eyed Dog’, leading into it with ‘Road’ sung acapella:

You can say the sun is shining if you really want to
I can see the moon and it seems so clear
You can take the road that takes you to the stars now
I can take a road that’ll see me through.

Zoe Rahman found her drumsticks and dashed across the stage with them, so that Karine was able to bash a large drum for emphasis on the final verse.

Zoe Rahman herself took centre stage just before the break, playing a jazzy instrumental version of ‘One Of These Things First’ with Danny Thompson on bass.

Teddy Thompson’s contributions were definite highpoints of the show; he excelled on ‘Riverman’, ‘Poor Boy’ and the duet with Krystle Warren on ‘Pink Moon’. It was at that point that I realised the music was filling me with a sense of exuberant happiness: Nick Drake purists might argue that this is all wrong, that the lyrics with which I opened this post contain the essential Drake world-view.  But this show manages to lift us away from Drake’s desperately sad story and throws light on the joyous qualities in some of his songs, which can be overlooked amidst the encircling gloom.  Drake’s English pastoralism, the sense of the seasons and observation of nature, also comes to the fore.  Yet behind this sunniness, there is, undoubtedly, a sense of alienation and impending darkness:

And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all

But the undoubted star of the show was Krystle Warren.  She inhabits each song with passionate intensity and her voice is extraordinary, shifting gears from whispered tenderness to growling intensity, her face full of expression as she sings, gripping the mic, squeezing every last drop of meaning and emotion from the lyrics. Her performances – on ‘Time Has Told Me’, ‘Pink Moon’ and ‘Hanging On a Star’ were simply outstanding:

Why leave me hanging on a star
When you deem me so high…

And why leave me sailing in a sea
When you hear me so clear..

The finale was an ensemble performance of the beautiful ‘Voice from the Mountain’ as everyone returned to the stage and a standing ovation.

Rehearsal footage from the Culture Show

Pink Moon live Philharmonic Hall Liverpool

Time Has Told Me – Krystle Warren (Glasgow, January 2010)

The meanings of Nick Drake’s songs will, perhaps, be understood differently by each listener. Drake’s contemporary at Cambridge, the rock critic Ian MacDonald, published an essay in 2003, Exiled from Heaven, in which he teased out the Zen Buddhist implications of songs like ‘River Man’, and argued that by the end Drake was frustrated by the failure to appreciate his gentle, haunted songs that invite the listener ‘to step out of this world of pose and noise’ and which ‘suggest that what matters is the spirit in which we live’ ; hence one of his last great songs, ‘Time of No Reply’:

Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply.

The sun went down and the crowd went home
I was left by the roadside all alone
I turned to speak as they went by
But this was the time of no reply.

The time of no reply is calling me to stay
There is no hello and no goodbye
To leave there is no way.

The trees on the hill had nothing to say
They would keep their dreams till another day
So they stood and thought and wondered why
For this was the time of no reply.

Time goes by from year to year
And no one asks why I am standing here
But I have my answer as I look to the sky
This is the time of no reply.

The time of no reply is calling me to stay
There’s no hello and no goodbye
To leave there is no way.

For MacDonald, Drake’s final album, Pink Moon, usually seen as ‘bleak, skeletal, nihilistic, ghoulish’, is in fact ‘an uncanny, magical record… a sparingly beautiful meditation.’  For MacDonald, Drake’s songs – preoccupied with what nature is telling us about ourselves – underscore the mystery of life. In the essay’s final paragraph MacDonald writes:

Can it be that the materialist world view, in which there is no intrinsic meaning, is slowly murdering our souls?  Nick Drake’s work reminds us that life is a predicament and that the world is an insoluble mystery. It tells us that a ‘magical’, contemplative way of seeing can keep us aware of this, preventing us destroying the world through the arrogant assumption that we know what it really is. We do not. We’re all exiled from heaven, though some of us don’t know it. But when ‘magic’ reveals heaven to us in a wild flower, we remember. And then we hear the chime.

Set list

Which Will (Vashti Bunyan & Kate St John)
Parasite (Robyn Hitchcock)
Day Is Done (Scott Matthews)
Fruit Tree (Green Gartside)
River Man (Teddy Thompson)
Northern Sky (Neill MacColl)
Time Has Told Me (Krystle Warren)
One Of These Things First (Zoe Rahman & Danny Thompson)

Way To Blue (Teddy Thompson)
Hanging On a Star (Krystle Warren)
Clothes of Sand (Green Gartside)
Free Ride (Green Gartside & Robyn Hitchcock)
Road/Black Eyed Dog (Karine Polwart)
Pink Moon (Krystle Warren & Teddy Thompson)
Poor Boy (Teddy Thompson)

Encore
I Saw Nick Drake (Robyn Hitchcock)
Voice from the Mountain (ensemble)

Links

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One thought on “Way To Blue at the Phil

  1. Interestingly, you may already be aware, that Ian MacDonald committed suicide in 2003. This may throw some light on his interpretations. I spent the day going from link to link and so much was revealed to me about myself and that I am not alone in the way I think and feel about life and death.

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