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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Barbican, London
January 22nd 2010

It’s the first gig of the year and we’re running late.  The Friday evening traffic through a dark and gloomy metropolis is hesitant in persistent rain.  Hunched figures, tightly wrapped against the weather, run across the road without warning. 

Nick Drake
Manners and post-Christmas seasonal goodwill are set aside as the more confident drivers jostle for lane and position, or hustle for a few extra yards’ advantage.  I almost hit two pedestrians as I missed a crossing light, turning from a minor road (yes, if you’re reading this, it was me, and I heartily apologise).  Eventually we arrived at the parking spot and then endured a costly fiasco with a ticket machine, paying three times more than we should have done into the coffers of Westminster Council for a half-hour slot (two quids).  That’s eaten into the considerable fiscal advantage to be gained by deploying the ‘half-price pizza’ offer kindly sent to me by those nice people at Pizza Express.  Yes, in case you hadn’t noticed we’re still in the grip of a recession, so it’s cheap pizza for all. It’s the Barbican, so it must be pizza.  And, I reflected, Barbera D’Alba in glass, American Hot (extra chillies) on plate, all of this for fucking Nick Drake.  Not that I bear anything against Mr Drake himself, nor his pretty, if not somewhat dated, songs.  But I despise the hoards of journalistic parasites who feed off his memory (as with the late Syd Barrett, who I see monopolises the cover of this month’s music magazine) and the PR agencies who ensure that every up and coming record company hopeful has Nick Drake in their list of influences.  Appropriate then that the opening song for this celebration of Drake’s work (and that of his arranger, Robert Kirby, who died last year), and it truly was a celebration, is ‘Parasites’, sung by a truly shirtadelic Robyn Hitchcock.
In case you don’t know, Drake died in 1974 from an overdose, facing an apparently failed career in music with three poorly-selling albums behind him and little critical acclaim.  But blessed with an early death (in grim hindsight, the ultimate price for critical and commercial success), his legend has outgrown anything he might have become had he have lived longer.  And brutally, regardless of how good they might be, the legend has also outgrown the quality of his original songs, famous for their melancholic, fey and world-weary sentiments.  But as is apparent from this performance which, perplexingly for a cynic like myself, is one of the most joyous and  ironically life-affirming I have attended for a long time, some musicians really do love him.  There is love on the stage, and love in the over-reverential audience.  The result is a great show. Nick Drake
Nick Drake, Bryter Layter, 1970
Indeed, how could it fail with a house band led by musical director Kate St John, featuring  Danny Thompson (who played on Drake’s Five Leaves Left in 1969 ) on bass, Zoe Rahman on piano, Neill McColl on guitar (he also sang a passionate version of ‘Northern Sky), and an eight-piece string section, with some beautiful cello playing from Ian Burdge as he accompanied Kirsty Almeida on (unsurprisingly) ‘Cello song’.  The line-up of performers was even stronger.  Folk-scene veteran Vashti Bunyan, weak of voice but strong of heart, sang ‘Which will’, and a perhaps ill-chosen composition from Drake’s mother, ‘I remember, you remember’.  Scott Matthews triumphed with ‘Place to be’, and struggled a little in the second half with ‘Day is done’ (“I think I’ve had too much to drink, actually”).  Lisa Hannigan turned in two cracking performance with ‘At the chime of a city clock’, with some beautiful clarinet playing from St John, and a rumbustious and other-worldly ‘Black-eyed dog’, singing, stamping her feet and playing a type of  harmonium.  Teddy Thompson played guitar and sang, making ‘Poor boy’ (performed with a surprising gospel swing) and ‘River man’ (brilliantly flowing piano from Rahman) sound as if he could have written them himself.  He made a bit of a thing of following the astonishingly-voiced Krystle Warren onto stage (we’ve seen these displays of false modesty before) after she’d turned in a remarkable and deeply soulful version of ‘Time has told me’, but the two of them later sang a marvellously uplifting version of ‘Pink moon ‘.  A “passing through from LA” Harper Simon played ‘From the morning’, picking his guitar with considerable verve. The Photographer particularly liked Scritti Politti front man Green Gartside, who looked remarkably nervous but sang perfectly on ‘Fruit tree’, and joined the irrepressible Hitchcock (“The Hungarians say there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Nick Drake wasn’t Hungarian but he did want a free ride”) on ‘Free ride’.  Hitchcock closed the show (before the ensemble encore of ‘Voice from the mountain’) with a solo performance of his own song ‘I saw Nick Drake’ (“I saw Nick Drake at the corner of Time and Motion”).
Nick Drake
This was a fabulous evening, and a hugely optimistic way to start a new year of reviews.   It may not have enamoured me any more to the cult of Nick Drake (a neighbour visits his grave at least once a year – who would do a crazy thing like that?) but it certainly opened the lid on many of his songs, even if a few of those performed here sounded somewhat “Radio 2”.  I’m sure it was almost too happy an evening for the average Nick Drake fan to bear, but I simply loved it, and even managed to forget (at least for a while) that I’d almost knocked two people down on the way to the show.  Sorry again, folks. - Nick Morgan (concert photograph by Kate)

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