British poet and singer-songwriter Nick Drake was not the kind of musician, admittedly, that I’d had much exposure to, or even had much knowledge of, when my appetite for music first kicked in. My exposure to Drake had always consisted primarily of other songwriters’ mentions of him: people like Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Kate Bush, artists who spoke of their love and admiration for Drake and his work in respectful, reverent tones. So years later, when my curiosity finally got the better of me, I borrowed some Nick Drake records from a friend.
After a few listens, I was a convert to the Church of Nick Drake. Listening to Northern Sky, Day is Done or any of his other songs in my room that day, I was struck by how, well, gentle, the whole thing was, how reserved. Keep in mind, that at that point of my life, I was deeply into bands like Faith No More and Bad Brains, and I had grown up listening to Frank Sinatra, so bombastic and over-the-top were pretty much par for the course for me in terms of what I was familiar with musically.
Drake’s earnest, honest, laid-back approach was jarring and foreign to me, striking in how Drake could put across so much in an understated way. There was something about his unrelenting earnestness and vulnerability that struck a chord with me. What I heard that day wasn’t anything like I’d ever heard before. There was definitely a strength and courage in his music, but all couched in a gentleness and openness that wasn’t the musical norm for me at that time. Drake has been referred to as a “musician’s musician.” The kind of songwriter who for one reason or another flies just under the radar of mainstream recognition and success. The kind of songwriter people inevitably discover, but slowly and in their own time, and that same discovery becomes richer and more worthwhile because of it.
In spite of the lack of any outright commercial success, Drake’s music is still just as relevant and vital as ever, as his style and approach have influenced countless singer-songwriters through the years. I dare you to try name a band where the singer hasn’t co-opted and borrowed from Drake’s subdued, reserved yet urgently immediate writing approach. Everyone from Patrick Watson to Radiohead to Elliot Smith to Jeff Buckley have Drake to thank in some way for his contribution. The Dream Academy song, “Life in a Northern Town,” for example, is actually a tribute to Drake. The Nick Drake song that most people seem to claim a familiarity with is “Pink Moon,” a beautifully evocative song, used a few years back as a musical backdrop for a VW Golf ad campaign. But Drake’s catalogue has also been used in movies and ad campaigns many times since. His music and lyrics are observational, thoughtful, literary, expansive, welcoming – and they tug at your heart. His material lingers in your brain and spirit. It connects and grounds you, and that’s why new generations of music fans are continually rediscovering his work.
Coming to the First Baptist Church Ottawa on Friday November 9, The Songs of Nick Drake Tour is designed to celebrate Drake’s life and songs. The brainchild of British-born musician Luke Jackson, the show was first produced at Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul United Church in November 2010, paying tribute to Drake and his extremely accomplished and talented composer, arranger and friend, Robert Kirby. Kirby’s tasteful and moving string arrangements became a big part of Drake’s songs live, and truly added an extra dimension of depth, warmth and lushness to the feel of the material. Sadly, Kirby unexpectedly died a week before the show was announced, and while his loss is tremendous, it also served to further inspire Jackson to honor Drake and Kirby. The show that night was recorded and broadcast by the CBC, and was an unqualified and resounding success.
Check out some of it here.
The musicians joining Jackson on tour reads like a veritable who’s who of Canadian music: Toronto alt-country darling Oh Susanna,the wonderful Kurt Swinghammer, Kevin Kane of The Grapes of Wrath, drummer Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) and double-bassist Jason Mercer (Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Ani DiFranco).
Swinghammer, a Canadian musical legend and artist in his own right, says that his attraction and appreciation for Nick Drake started via Toronto’s legendary CHUM-FM radio station: “They used to play him a lot in those days, and I was transfixed by his voice and his music. It was this hybrid of jazz, folk, sometimes even bordering on easy-listening. At that time, it was the norm for male singers to be more aggressive, and he was a really refreshing backlash to that kind of rock-and-roll thing that had taken over blues-based singing. He was coming to it from a very gentle place, and I think that has influenced a lot of contemporary singers. (His style) was an original blend of things, and that’s the kind of artist I’m drawn to. He was a real singular kind of voice at the time. He was a very striking presence, and it’s a pleasure to get to perform the material live.” To coincide with the tour, Swinghammer is releasing Two Portraits: a limited-edition 12″ single of his version of Nick Drake’s “River Man” backed by a version of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street.” The sleeve will feature Swinghammer’s portraits of both singer/songwriters.
The tour has been intentionally organized and booked to play unique venues, in churches for example, eschewing the traditional “soft-seat” theatre route. Jackson explains: “The show at St. Paul’s had such a good vibe, and there are certain benefits to playing in those types of venues. There’s a beautiful built-in ambiance. Nick’s music sounds great in a church, and we were able to sidestep all the politics and goings-on that usually take place when dealing with theatre venues. It was really refreshing to be able to do that. This is something that I’m taking very seriously. It’s something I would like to take out and tour every year. But it’s a matter of making this tour a success. I’ve been working on it pretty much non-stop for a year, giving my all and pulling out all the stops to prove it can be done. I want to know that I haven’t cut any corners in trying to make sure that this tour is a success.”
Another unique aspect of this tour is that Jackson has invited local musicians from each city they will be playing in to join the band on stage. The lovely and hyper-talented Jim Bryson, Marie-Jo Thério and Marc Robert Nelson will be joining The Songs of Nick Drake Tour in Ottawa.
“That was something that made a lot of sense from a production point of view,” Jackson said. “Inviting musicians who are fellow Nick Drake fans from those cities keeps the show fresh and different every night. We’ll never have the same show twice. For the ten of us on the tour who are playing each night, we get into a groove with our own thing. But then some real magic will happen when we have the guests and throw them into the mix. We’re all coming at it with a good degree of musicianship but with very little in the way of rehearsal, and I think that’s a good recipe for something more organic. I wanted to do something that honored Nick’s musical legacy and took everything in a slightly different direction as well.”
And this approach guarantees that the shows will evolve and change from venue to venue, delivering a new and unique musical experience at every performance.
The Songs of Nick Drake Tour will take place at the First Baptist Church Ottawa on Friday, November 9. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. Available at Vertigo Records, Legends, Ottawa Folklore Centre, Compact Music Inc. or online at ticketbreak.com
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