The Way To Blue Concert was originally commissioned by Birmingham Town Hall for the English Originals festival in May 2009 and was curated by Nick Drake's record producer Joe Boyd, as well as his friend and string arranger Robert Kirby, who sadly died in October last year. This Italian version of the concert was organised by both Fondazione Musica per Roma and the Barbican Centre in London, together with Puglia Sounds. In fact, the vocalists were accompanied by a string sextet of Apulian musicians from the Collegium Musicum di Bari. Boyd himself appeared on stage several times during the evening and seemed at special pains to ensure that the Italian audience understood the significance of Drake's lyrics, asking Roberto Angelini to translate some passages, whilst the presence of Danny Thompson in the band, the legendary bassist who played on many of Drake’s recordings, further emphasised the continuity between the original albums and this tribute.
I absolutely adore Nick Drake and I'll admit that before the concert I had some reservations about whether I really wanted to hear other artists perform his songs. My fears were instantly assuaged as the strains of Joey – just music, no words – opened the evening, and then artist after artist proceeded to delight the audience with their own interpretation of Drake's songs, under the musical direction of Kate St. John, a former member of pop band Dream Academy, whose massive 1980s hit single Life In A Northern Town was dedicated to Drake. There were many wonderful moments, but I particularly enjoyed Fruit Tree sung by Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti fame), whose voice suited the material exceptionally well. Teddy Thompson's Poor boy and River man were exquisite, as were Vashti Bunyan's soft and breathless versions of Which will and I remember (by Drake's mother Molly), whilst Scott Matthews' vocal and physical similarity to Drake himself during Day Is Done made one imagine, just for a second, that the man himself was back among us. Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman was stunning all evening, but her duet with bassist Danny Thompson on One of These Things First was a show stopper. The discovery of the night for me personally, however, was Krystal Warren. Her mesmerizing performance of Time has told me, which stripped the song down to its raw essentials and transformed it into a gospel-meets-soul rendition that even Nina Simone would have been proud to call her own, brought the house down last night, as did her exhilarating duet with Teddy Thompson on Pink Moon.
The first song of the encores was, in fact, the only song of the evening not to have been written by Nick Drake, but was instead a song about him. In broken Italian, Robyn Hitchcock explained that he had dreamed about Drake many years after his death, and proceeded to sing the curious I saw Nick Drake. After over two and half hours of celebrating the man and his music the simple sentiments of the lyrics “I saw Nick Drake...and he was fine” were unexpectedly moving. The entire ensemble then gathered for Voice from the Mountain, a song from Nick Drake's final recording session. We now know that life was very dark for Drake when he recorded this, but yesterday the song sounded ultimately uplifting.
This was a wonderful evening and a fitting tribute to Nick Drake's utterly timeless songwriting.