Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake – Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House; Friday November 11, 2011

You hear about them. Seldom do you believe they are real.

I can’t exactly say it lived up to the hype, because I hadn’t seen any. In fact I bought a ticket on the strength of an email sent by the Opera House, and that’s as much as I knew about it before I walked in the door.

Oh I knew about Nick Drake but, like many, I was a late starter. My education began in earnest with the revealing documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake” by Dutch director Jeroen Berkvens which aired on SBS. I immediately bought all three of his albums, plus a 2004 compilation called Made to Love Magic which includes some raw and previously unreleased recordings. Both the doco and this compilation catered to the reignited interest in Drake that had started in the late 90s.

I must admit to some trepidation. I generally avoid tribute concerts. To be frank, I find them lame. I only vaguely knew some of the artists on the bill, and I was also wondering what approach would be taken. Would it be rote performances that end up sounding like bad impersonations? And knowing the complexity of Drake’s guitar technique – and his fondness for various open tunings – how they would actually pull the whole thing off?

Well here’s where I give myself a serious slap for my cynicism. It was one of the most sublime of concert experiences. One of those ones that I simply didn’t think actually happened.

The whole venture has been curated by Joe Boyd, who produced Drake’s first two albums. It was first performed in the UK in 2009 and I believe at some stage it was recorded for the BBC. It has also visited other countries with a core set of performers, but also featuring artists from the host country.

Whilst I knew of one of the local performers, I admit to knowing very little about the rest. There will be readers with much more knowledge than I. I have since done a little research, but still prefer to speak from my impressions on the night.

Robyn Hitchcock kicked off with ‘Parasite’. He’s been described as a ‘globetrotting rock troubadour’ and was lead singer of The Soft Boys in the 70s before going solo. Prowling onto the stage with his shock of floating white hair, his choice of a monochrome jester-style shirt seemed to signal his intention of ‘…lifting the mask from a local clown.’. This was an arresting version. Hitchcock carries with him the elan and intensity of the music poets of the 70s, as well as an anarchic unpredictability which brought some of the anger and sense of danger out of the song which Drake’s own performance seems to prefer to restrain. In such an unleashing, Hitchcock sacrifices some of Drake’s precision on the guitar, but this is not a bad thing. It’s how you imagine Drake might have been if he’d just dropped his guard a little.

Other performers include Green Gartside of Scritti Politti fame who brought his sweet and clean pop sensibilities to songs like ‘Fruit Tree’ and ‘Hazey Jane II’. These were brighter, more upbeat interpretations which have added a lot more colour to the way I listen to those songs now. In an aside, Gartside was also the perfect straight man to Robyn Hitchcock’s commedia-style overreaction to some technical issues before the two of them rocked out on ‘Free Ride’. It was a funny moment.

One of the local acts to join the internationals on this tour is Melbourne folk duo Luluc. Again an act I know nothing about, but will now investigate further. A number of years ago, I was introduced to the stunning voice of the late Kate Wolf, an American folk singer and songwriter whose short career ended when she died in 1986 from leukaemia. Her songs have since been covered by Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris among many others, but she remains relatively obscure in her own right. When Zoe Randall of Luluc opened her first notes on ‘Which Will’, I was struck by the similarities. A beautiful, sonorant alto voice, no grit, pure gold. It was enhanced even further by her use of nylon strings on what I believe was a lovely little Martin guitar. And it wasn’t just the voice – both she and Steve Hassett have Drake’s technical skills in spades. As was becoming clear, this wasn’t about mimicry, this was about intepretation and faithfulness to each artist’s own style, as well as to Drake. So this version added a lustre that was Luluc’s own. When they later returned to perform ‘Fly’ I was completely sold. It was gorgeous.

I may be waxing lyrical so far, but there were a couple of downsides. One is a little whinge to the Opera House. I have an impression that the acoustics in the Concert Hall are supposed to be superior. So why on earth was I getting slapped in the back of the head by echoes from the high-hats? About half a second after each use of the high hat, the echo clattered back to me and was somewhat off-putting. I don’t know if you have to sit in a certain part of the audience to avoid that problem, but I eventually had to build a bridge…

The other downside relates to some staggering ignorance on my part regarding Vashti Bunyan. I knew nothing about her. As with the other artists, I have since done some reading and I get that she is a cult figure and held in great reverence. However, in my ignorance, I found her performance of ‘Things Behind the Sun’ quite disengaging. Not knowing who she was, or what she was about left me struggling. Her timidity and quietness was a little unnerving. I genuinely thought she was nervous and I was starting to worry. Knowing now what I know, I am an idiot for thinking that. But I can’t change my impression of the moment. I can only listen again in future with new ears.

That said, her performance of a song written by Drake’s mother Polly called ‘I Remember, You Remember’ was lovely. It illustrates the source of Drake’s sense of irony and was delivered with some knowingness and delight. It was also this song that gave me a hint at the beauty and strength Bunyan’s voice can have – but it was all too fleeting. I sense I have much to learn, master.

My earlier misgivings about mimicry resurfaced with the appearance of Scott Matthews. A UK folk rock/indie singer who lists Drake as one of his influences, Matthews certainly has the Drake look happening with the retro hair and dark blazer, all tall, thin and handsome. These misgivings gave way immediately when he started. His playing is excellent: precise and controlled. Matthews’ performances of ‘River Man’, ‘Day is Done’ and ‘From the Morning’ were perhaps the closest to Drake’s way, but were far from hollow echoes. They were beautiful, simple renditions (as much as anything by Drake can be called simple).

I was also struck by the fact that the recurring guitar theme that underscores ‘From the Morning’ is very similar to that of a song on the 1 Giant Leap concept album which received some Triple J airplay in around 2005 called ‘Braided Hair’. That theme is what drew me to the later song in the first place, but this was the first time I’d made the connection as to its origins. I love it when that happens.

The other Australian element among the guest performers was Shane Nicholson. Like many, I know him as Kasey Chambers’ other half, and have formed a very limited impression of him based on a RocKwiz appearance, as well as his backing of Chambers when she was supporting Lyle Lovett last year at the State Theatre. I don’t have the Rattlin’ Bones album, or any of his or his wife’s solo work. On this basis, I was struggling to see the connection between he and Drake. But I think Joe Boyd’s vision was to gather together a collection of artists who can tease out the many influences of Drake’s work and ask us to understand them in an entirely new way. And the inclusion of Nicholson certainly did this for me.

Drake’s original version of ‘Poor Boy’ had a syncopated jazz rhythm (forgive my limited jazz vocabulary), was in a minor key and featured gospel-style backing vocals. The gospel backing vocals remained for Nicholson’s version, but it seemed that the chorus had been converted to a major key and carried a country kick to it which completely changed the experience of the song. It was quite unexpected and injected a lot of great energy. Nicholson later joined Neill MacColl for a beautifully rendered version of ‘Rider on The Wheel’ which came out brighter and prettier than the darker original, with the colour coming from a combination of MacColl’s skills (more of whom later) and Nicholson’s spirit.

If ever a voice was tailored to ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’, Irish singer Lisa Hannigan’s is it. It’s perfectly suited to chasing Drake’s unexpected note changes and lifting out the vulnerability and fear that entreats us to ‘Stay indoors, Beneath the floors, Talk with neighbours only.’. However hers is not an unusual voice on the folk scene at the moment. She was beginning to look like one of any number of young singers who are what I call ‘the breathy ingenues’.

Setting Hannigan aside for a moment for a tiny rant, if you sense a little cynicism, you’re right. I’m a little over the breathy thing. It works for some people in my opinion – Washington and Lanie Lane are two Australian examples of singers in this style that I really admire. But that’s because they have other styles in their repertoire and have the ability to use each style judiciously. Unfortunately, there are a lot of singers out there who can’t get beyond the whisper, and it’s grating. Rant ended.

Back to Hannigan, I was starting to dismiss her and put her in the breathy bag, until toward the end of the show when the Opera House ‘roadies’ filed out carrying her euphonium and set her up for what turned out to be one of the most astonishing performances I can recall seeing. Ever.

The song was ‘Black Eyed Dog’ and Hannigan was close to frightening. Thumping the rhythm with her foot and thrashing her head back and forth, this was a raw and howling rail against Drake’s struggles with his depression. The sheer shock and power of Hannigan’s performance touched every single nerve in the room as Hannigan seemed to personify all of our frustration at losing the talents of someone like Drake too early. I’m still shaking.

The other absolute highlight was American Krystle Warren. No single performance – just her.

She apparently gained initial attention in the UK with a show-stealing performance on Jools Holland Later. But two nights ago, I knew nothing of this. I was so stunned when she began ‘Time Has Told Me’ that I can’t actually remember whether she had any backing. I don’t think she did – or they joined her later. Whatever. She has the most incredible, deep voice that swelled and fell with extraordinary control. Every note was carefully calibrated for full effect. But this was neither calculated nor cold – it emerged straight from her soul. Then, as she neared the climax, the opening of her throat seemed to physically throw us back in our seats. But even then, it felt like she still held something back. She later came back for a medley of ‘Hanging On a Star’ and ‘Magic’ which was equally as spellbinding.

Others I have read have likened her to other artists. Google and you will find some reviews. But sometimes it’s just not right to make comparisons.

Warren and Nicholson also teamed up for a sensational version of ‘Pink Moon’ which, for me, certainly shed more new light on Nicholson. I already knew what Warren could do by this stage – and she was incredible yet again. But I also saw Nicholson embracing his jazz and soul side which created a synergy between the two of them I wasn’t expecting. I have some more investigating to do on both of these people.

As for the team behind the guests – musical direction was from the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist Kate St John who also lent backing vocals to a number of the ensemble performances. I imagine bringing together a show like that using such disparate talents would be not unlike herding the proverbial cats.

Australians formed the septet of strings in the backing band. Their talents were particularly showcased by the beautiful ‘Way to Blue’ which opened the second half.

And special mention to Drake’s own bass player, Danny Thompson, who received a very warm reception when introduced, and also joined Zoe Rahman on piano for a wonderful instrumental version of ‘One of These Things First’. You can find it on You Tube here.

But one person in the background stole me completely and that was Neill MacColl. He’s part of the folk royalty I suspected his name might suggest and he seems to have lingered on the fringes of my musical experience for many years thanks to his collaborations with some of my favourite artists including Nanci Griffith, Boo Hewerdine, Steve Earle, Loudon Wainwright III and many, many others. Again, I had no idea of this on the night – I just found myself drawn to his wonderful playing. It was on his skills that the ability of this production to pull off Drake’s technical excellence hinged. And he did it. He was the lynchpin and he was marvellous. Whilst Robyn Hitchcock was letting Drake’s hair down, MacColl was in the background hitting the marks that maybe Drake would likely still have wanted to be in place. Then they let him out front for the most wonderful version of ‘Northern Sky’, as well as duetting with Nicholson on ‘Rider on the Wheel’. Not just a great player, but a beautifully strong folk voice as well. The whole package. I’m gushing.

So as cynics go, I’m obviously rubbish.

I think it’s because this event has articulated back to me the reasons why I like Drake’s music by lifting out all of his influences and holding them up to me in their own forms. I didn’t expect to be challenged like that or, ultimately, so rewarded.

I need a lie down.

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Justin Townes Earle Live – The Basement – March 4, 2011

The last in my series of ‘delayed reactions’ and this time it’s Justin Townes Earle who played at the Basement back in March.

Another one where I was not sure what to expect…a feeling which grew as I checked out the audience. Fair to say it was varied: ageing hippies and the typical folk/blues crowd but also lots of urbanistas, forties retro kids and then a small clutch of flannel shirts (not worn ironically). It made for some colourful exchanges and, had JTE heard them, he would likely have revelled in it. He’s a party boy and makes no apologies. As he told the crowd later: if you’re offended by things like swearing and stories of a hard life “You’re in the wrong ****ing place”.

So the tone was set. Or so I thought.

Out walks this guy looking sharp in a suit (brave in the close environs of the Basement). Add liberal doses of bad boy southern charm delivered via some disarming honesty and it’s not hard to see how the room was his. Well – most of it – the guys in the flannies were seemingly rendered immune by large quantities of Bundy.

Being a fan of one person and a guitar on stage, I was glad JTE opted for this setup. But I was also very impressed with his occasional accompaniment on the fiddle by the unassuming yet extraordinary Josh Hedley. His playing is intricate and precise and comes complete with a lovely vocal that you wouldn’t intuitively pair with Justin but which works beautifully.

As for JTE, the first thing that struck me was his guitar playing. I’ve since learned his style is his take on clawhammer banjo style. Essentially he anchors with his pinkie, plucks with the thumb and strums with the other two fingers. To achieve the sound that he gets clearly requires an incredible strength in the hands, and watching him live shows how much strength he has. The style is totally unique and the effect is marked – a really full sound which makes you look for at least other two strummers on stage. This style also allows him to change up easily from a soft shuffle to a much more strident attack on the strings as he moves seamlessly across his musical influences.

I also like how his vocals shift. It’s not just softer when he slows down for something like ‘Who am I to say’. It takes on a graininess and there’s an extra twang in the accent which isn’t as obvious in his more upbeat songs. These are also the songs where I can very clearly hear his father.

But then, when he’s not in ballad mode, he sounds completely different again. In fact, try as I might, I can’t actually think of an artist who sounds like him. That definitely makes it harder to recommend him to others as it’s nice to be able to cite similar artists to pique interest. But at the same time, comparisons like that can often do artists a complete disservice. And of that – as well as the fact JTE is going to be living with comparisons in other quarters all his life (including mine in the previous paragraph) – I’m really rather glad.

With four albums under his belt, three of which charted in the US, JTE has a nice bunch of material to choose from but the emphasis was on Midnight at the Movies and Harlem River Blues – his two most recent, and definitely more successful, albums. The latter was actually something of a crossover success making some headway on the rock and indie charts in the US (which might go some way to explaining the diverse audience he attracts).

And on top of all his skill and great music – he’s a funny guy. I don’t mean that in a goofball way. It’s a sharp, natty, knowing wit which adds up to that ‘bad boy southern charm’ I mentioned earlier. Others might want to investigate his darker side – and for some of the forties ‘dames’ in the room, I’m sure that’s a big part of the appeal – but I, for one, am more than happy to leave it there and just get on with listening to what he does best.

So here’s a little of what he does best – the title track from Harlem River Blues:

Lyle Lovett Live

I have a few reactions to some live shows which I thought I’d throw out there. These are from things I’ve seen in the past year or more. I won’t call them reviews – I don’t have the press releases a reviewer would get, so not as informed as I’d like to be. I’ll add detail where I can.

The first is Lyle Lovett at the State Theatre in Sydney back on 29 March 2010. Here’s what I sent out to a friend at the time:

I was so impressed. I have a DVD of him performing mostly his jazz stuff, with a guest appearance by Randy Newman and the two of them performing their work for the Toy Story franchise. Whilst the music was fantastic, and the Large Band a treat, frankly I found it a little lacking. I now realise why. The difference when you see him unedited and live is the chat between songs, which reveals more of his wit and warmth. And charm. The man is the consummate gentleman and extremely gracious – even in the face of those inevitable moments when people shout out from the back but clam up when Lyle actually tried to engage.

What I didn’t realise is that Lyle appears to have a studio band and a live band – with only one member from his studio lot joining him on the road (Viktor Krauss – brother of Alison Krauss). There was an interesting set up – very pared back. No drums – just bongos, a cello, Viktor Krauss on electric double-bass, and two fellows from a bluegrass background who blew me away. Keith Sewell played lead acoustic and mandolin and has a voice entirely suited to bluegrass with its nasal twang, and Luke Bulla played mostly fiddle and lead acoustic on a couple of songs. His voice is lovely – it has a lot more clarity and resonance and blends beautifully with Lovett. These two have been playing bluegrass since they were six years old and have known each other since then. They are only in their thirties or so, but it’s clear there is only bluegrass in their veins.

And I think Lyle and the band would have to be the sharpest dressers on the road. Ever.

Of course Lyle’s guitar work makes you realise how technically good he is. And the voice. That’s what you go for and it doesn’t disappoint – that catching, dry, almost faltering but somehow rich sound which is quite unique and delivers as emotively live as in the booth.

The effect of the sparse backing band is that he has been able to recreate the mood of Joshua Judges Ruth, whilst the bluegrass guys made the newer stuff from Natural Forces really work well. ‘Pantry’, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel’ and the title track were all superb.

For me the only downside of bongos with brushes is that you lose some of the drive behind some of the songs from The Road to Ensenada which is my personal favourite of his albums. ‘I Can’t Love You Anymore’ and ‘Private Conversation’ just missed that kick which is what I love about them. That said, it does inject a new feel to the songs and you start hearing them differently. And that’s a pretty petty criticism for a performance which delivered in so many ways.

I was on a total high after this show – and after watching live videos, I hadn’t expected to be. Then again – how could I not? I’m a fan for a reason – he’s one of the smartest, wittiest, sharpest, most talented singers and musicians I know of. I have almost all his albums. Why was I surprised?

His My Space page has some tracks from Natural Forces for free download – and I highly recommend ‘Pantry’. You can also demand that he comes back to Sydney (column on the right lets you DemandIt). Go on, I did. Because I, for one, hope he gets back here soon.