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Songs of Nick Drake

Dave Kaufman By

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Nick Drake recorded three of the most sublime albums in the history of folk-rock (or any other genre) in his brief lifetime. He died in relative obscurity at the age of 26 in 1974. A devoted cult following has emerged, and his stature has grown immeasurably in the decades since his passing. Drake's work has been covered by notable artists such as Lucinda Williams, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Calexico. His songs have also been covered by several jazz artists. Brad Mehldau recorded four or five Drake compositions, including a hauntingly beautiful version of "River Man." "Day is Done" served as the title track to one of his finest trio recordings. Drake's work has become an integral part of Mehldau's repertoire. Lizz Wright and Andy Bey also recorded compelling versions of 'River Man." The Charlie Hunter Quartet with Norah Jones recorded a soulful version of the "Day is Done." The Songlines label produced a jazz compilation of Drake's songs, Poor Boy: The Songs of Nick Drake.

Luke Jackson, British born Toronto-based singer-songwriter, has paid tribute to Drake over the course of the last 15 years in a show known as the Songs of Nick Drake. For the last two years, the show has been performed at Hugh's Room Live, perhaps the best live music venue in Toronto. It offers great seating, sight-lines, fine acoustics, and excellent food. It also has a quiet policy during the performance. I caught the second of two nights, which was very close to a sold-out performance. The first set featured songs off Drake's second and third albums, Bryter Later and Pink Moon, as well as songs that were released posthumously. Bryter Later is Drake's most popular and accessible album. Pink Moon is a starkly beautiful, but bleak album that features Drake on guitar and vocals. The second set was devoted entirely to Five Leafs Left, which was released in 1969 and is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Much of Drake's music is rather spare, but there are beautiful string arrangements by the late Robert Kirby on his first two albums. Kirby was a friend and collaborator to Luke Jackson. He provided some of the string arrangements that were used in this concert. In general, the arrangements were exceptionally well done. The string section included Alex Cheung and Sahra Featherstone on violin. Featherstone also played harp, flute, and sang beautifully on "Clothes of Sand," a lovely enigmatic song that was released on a posthumous recording, Time of No Reply. Johan Lotter played viola, and Wendy Solomon was featured on cello as well as vocals. Maury Lafoya on bass had the dual role of contributing to the string section and as part of the rhythm section with drummer Mark Mariash. Flautist Andrea Kovats and Liz Eccleston on oboe were used to excellent effect on certain songs. Kovats was the featured soloist on a very moving version of Sunday (one of the few instrumentals in the Drake catalog) and one of the highlights of this great evening of music.

The show featured a stellar cast of singer/instrumentalists, including singer/songwriter and noted jazz pianist Elizabeth Shepherd who sang a drop-dead gorgeous rendition of "River Man." Patricia O'Callaghan is a renowned opera singer who has also song folk, including the music of Leonard Cohen. She performed a lovely version of "Northern Sky," which is one of Drake's most beautifully poetic and uplifting compositions. Mitch Girio, Montreal born musician and producer whose work spans a range of genres including ska and rockabilly, performed a stellar rendition of the rather mysterious Drake composition "Three Hours." Other notable singers included Lisa Boudreau, who sang a memorable version of "Pink Moon," and Brent Jackson performed "Things Behind the Sun," a song with a vaguely foreboding message ("Please beware of them that stare"). The duet of Marla and David Celia opened with an affecting version of "Place to Be," a profoundly melancholy track from Pink Moon. Nick Drake possessed a singularly unique voice with a distinctly British articulation and sang with a soft breathy tone. The diversity of voices in this concert did not endeavor to emulate Drake but reinvent his songs in a personal way that retained their essential beauty. The two and half hours of music was filled with numerous highlights and affecting tributes to Drake's great body of timeless music.
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