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Various Artists - Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake (Navigator)

Star rating: 
4

Joe Boyd could almost be seen as the Forrest Gump of the music world. Whilst our naïve and slow-witted movie hero just happens to be there at some of the defining events of the latter half of the twentieth century, Boyd was likewise at the centre of some of the defining moments in the history of popular music, from the days of tour managing early UK visits by artists such as Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1960s; the bloke who was responsible for the sound at Newport when Dylan went all electric; the entrepreneur who opened the UFO Club in London; the producer behind Pink Floyd's debut single and a whole bunch of classic albums by the likes of the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and literally dozens of others. For Boyd, life really has been like a box of chocolates and he certainly didn't know what he was 'gonna git' when Nick Drake walked into his life.

These days you can't watch a documentary about Nick Drake without Boyd popping up somewhere. Joe produced Drake's first two albums and has subsequently claimed that the second of these, BRYTER LAYTER, was probably his crowning achievement as a producer. However, such reminiscences are shrouded in sadness as time has told us for Drake left us far too early, not because he allowed his excesses to get the better of him like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison before him, but because he felt his genius was overlooked during his lifetime, as he points out in his highly prophetic song Fruit Tree: 'Safe in your place deep in the earth, That's when they'll know what you were really worth..'

In the mid-1980s, there was a sudden resurgence of interest in the songs of Nick Drake, with musicians citing the musician as an influence and compilations began to spring up all over the shop. Later, an annual pilgrimage to Tanworth-in-Arden, the location of the family home and final resting place of the young musician, began to attract curious musical wayfarers to the sleepy village to partake in a frenzy of retuning, whilst visiting Drake's grave with the epitaph 'Now we rise and we are everywhere' emblazoned on the headstone.

Still the spokesman for all things Drake, Joe Boyd organised a series of concerts in 2009 to celebrate Nick's music, inviting a cast of prominent Drakies to come along and re-visit some of his best loved songs in both London and Melbourne. WAY TO BLUE: THE SONGS OF NICK DRAKE represents the highlights of these concerts with contributions from Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Lisa Hannigan, Robyn Hitchcock and others. Double bassist Danny Thompson, who worked with Drake on his debut album in 1969 is part of the house band as is guitarist Neil MacColl, who knows precisely how to get his fingers navigating Nick's more obscure tunings. Kate St John takes care of musical direction and Robert Kirby supplies the original arrangements, as he did on those early recordings.

Whilst the last thing we want are carbon copies of Nick's songs, the meticulous scouring of the tabs and futile imitations of Nick's breathy and ethereal vocals, there is a certain essence that should be adhered to when tackling these songs. Whilst Lisa Hannigan does this in spades, maintaining the painfully tortured vocal on Black Eyed Dog for instance, Scott Matthews belts it out as if he was doing a tribute to Jeff Buckley, another tragic figure who left us too early, with his energetic take on Place To Be. Both Green Gartside and Robyn Hitchcock offer sinister sly fox-like vocal deliveries on their respective contributions, Fruit Tree and Parasite, whilst Teddy Thompson turns in a pretty faithful version of River Man and goes on to duet fabulously with Krystle Warren on the closing Pink Moon.

All the songs included here are treated with a good deal of respect and in some cases there is the feeling that the performers are realising an ambition to do Drake some justice, Zoe Rhaman's piano work for instance on One of These Things First, an instrumental shared with Danny Thompson or Shane Nicholson's jazzy workout on Poor Boy, recreating the quality of the improvised original. As a homage to Nick Drake WAY TO BLUE succeeds in essence, but as an introduction to Nick Drake, you need look no further than the FRUIT TREE box set; it's essential listening. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky