Nick Drake's music lives on

Keiron Pim Nick Drake's music continues to win new fans long after his tragically early death, and on May 10 and 11 his admirers in Norfolk will enjoy a rare chance to hear his songs performed live. KEIRON PIM finds out more.

Keiron Pim

Few people ever saw Nick Drake perform in concert, so for the late singer's ever-growing legion of admirers Keith James could just be the next best thing.

Keith and double bassist Rick Foot bring their show, The Songs of Nick Drake, to Norfolk on May 10 and 11 as part of a national tour that celebrates what would have been the iconic singer-songwriter's 60th birthday.

Drake died in 1974 almost unnoticed by the music world, aged only 26 and leaving a small legacy of only three albums, which sank almost without trace during his lifetime. He played a handful of concerts but found performing before an audience a difficult experience, particularly when people insisted on talking through his softly delivered, introspective songs.

For years after his tragic death he was admired by a minority of people as a private passion, almost revered for his obscurity, famous only for not being famous.

But the past decade has seen his fame grow to the point where almost every up-and-coming singer-songwriter seems to namecheck him as an influence.

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Keith is a performer in his own right, also working as a producer, and found that performing Drake's work came naturally “because by some odd twist of fate, I grew up playing, singing and writing in such a similar style that I have had little to wrestle with. Because of this I feel able to engage audiences into his prose. It will always remain an incredible honour to play Nick's music.”

Audiences and critics have praised his and Rick's interpretations of Drake's songs; BBC radio presenter Mark Radcliffe is a fan, and so is one of Drake's biographers, Trevor Dann, who said “Keith's concert is a loving reappraisal of Nick Drake's timeless music”. Last year Keith and Rick were invited to perform at Glastonbury.

In Keith's view Drake's music is “exceptional”.

“Like Bob Dylan, it's not all brilliant but the wonderful stuff is just wonderful,” he said. Formed around precise, well-spoken vocals and intricate acoustic guitar picking, it is the kind of uplifting music that is lazily labelled as depressing because it doesn't shout its intentions. Instead it grants that the listener has the sensitivity to draw out its subtle beauty.

Drake fused folk and blues-influenced guitar with jazz inflections, classical orchestration that has grandeur but is always tastefully restrained, and a wistful element of French chanson that was a legacy of time spent in Aix-en-Provence.

Rather than treating the songs as “museum pieces”, Keith and Rick describe what they do as “a homage to Nick Drake rather than a tribute act”. They play in their own style, which is actually closer to that of John Martyn and Danny Thompson, Drake's fellow folk-rock pioneers. One of Martyn's best-known songs, Solid Air, is about Drake and it also features in Keith and Rick's set list.

“We rework the songs quite a bit; we are our own people,” said Keith, who lives in Canterbury. “I suppose I play them to my own taste, and I have picked the songs that I believe are the most beautiful.”

Drake was born in Burma into an upper middle-class family, who relocated to Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, when he was a child. His privileged upbringing eased him from prep school to Marlborough to Cambridge University, but after an initially promising musical career the wheels came off. His debut album Five Leaves Left was released in 1969 and followed the year after by Bryter Layter. Both garnered critical acclaim but neither sold well. This commercial failure helped to send Drake deep into a numbing depression but in 1972 he summoned the wherewithal to record a stark 28-minute final album, Pink Moon. The brief instrumental track Horn captures the tone of his final two years, creeping along at the pace of shadows stretching across a lawn on a summer evening, hinting at the oncoming night. It is one of the most succinctly moving pieces of music you are likely to hear.

Keith plays four songs from that album: Parasite, Things Behind the Sun, Place to Be and the title song, which formed the soundtrack to a VW Golf advertisement in the US a few years back and was largely responsible for bringing Drake's work to an enormous new American audience; Brad Pitt is probably the best known celebrity to have mentioned a liking for his music.

Steve Forster, who is promoting the Norwich concert, is one of the relatively few people to have bought Nick Drake's records when they were originally released.

“Occasionally people ask me what my favourite album is and I often quote Robert Wyatt's album Rock Bottom, but I have probably listened to Nick Drake's albums more than I have anyone else's records,” he said.

“They suit summer evenings, cold winter mornings, they are nice when you are happy or relaxed, and they comfort you when you are sad.

“Speaking as one of the few people who did buy a Nick Drake record during his lifetime and has loved the music since, it will be good to hear the songs played live.”

The Songs Of Nick Drake, performed by Keith James and Rick Foot, is on at the Folk on the Pier festival, Cromer, at 7.30pm on Saturday, May 10, and at Cinema City, St Andrew's Street, Norwich on Sunday May 11 at 8pm. The Cromer performance is sold out. Tickets for Cinema City cost £12.50 - call the box office on 0871 704 2053.

Keith and Rick's show at Cinema City on May 11 will be accompanied by a screening of a documentary titled Nick Drake: Under Review, featuring contributions from Kathryn Williams, Ralph McTell, John Renbourne and Nick Drake biographer Patrick Humphries among others.