Canadian Stars Align for Nick Drake Tribute Night in Toronto

Canadian Stars Align for Nick Drake Tribute Night in Toronto
Tribute concerts have become a dime a dozen in recent years, but the upcoming Nick Drake tribute night in Toronto deserves to be viewed in a different light. For one thing, it's a fundraising concert for a good cause, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and for another, it has a very real link to the late artist being honoured.

The lineup for the Toronto show is an impressive one. Top Canadian singer/songwriters and Drake fans who will be covering his material include Emm Gryner, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Stephen Fearing, Kevin Kane (the Grapes of Wrath), David Celia and Luke Jackson. There will also be a undisclosed mystery guest. The house band comprises Kurt Swinghammer, Maury Lafoy and Don Kerr, while an eight-piece string section under the direction of cellist Kevin Fox will add lush textures to many of the songs.

"It's an extraordinary event with an amazing array of artists right down to the backing band," Gryner tells Exclaim! "I don't leave my house for much these days unless it's something like this. Nick Drake was an exceptional soul who struggled with life. I consider the evening to be a tribute not only to his life, but to everyone who finds living a struggle. Some people make magic out of the mire and Nick was no exception."

Set for Trinity St. Paul's on Sunday (November 28), the concert can also be seen as a tribute to another artist, famed English string arranger Robert Kirby, who passed away last year. He worked with such artists as Elvis Costello, John Cale, the Strawbs, Elton John and Paul Weller, and his sensitive arrangements were a crucial component in Drake's timeless music. These will be reprised at the Toronto tribute concert, a real coup for concert organizer Jackson. There will be a sad undertone to their use, however, the Toronto singer-songwriter told Exclaim! recently.

Jackson explains that the Nick Drake tribute was initially planned to take place a year ago, with Kirby in attendance. "The hall was booked, CAMH were on board, and I was about to announce the show and buy Robert's flight. He'd had a series of health issues, and I'd joke to him, 'Robert, you still going to be alive for this?' He said 'I certainly hope so.' Then he phoned me, saying in his typically optimistic manner, 'Don't be alarmed. I've had a heart attack but they're doing great work with me and I'm still hoping to come. I'll know after the weekend.' Sadly, he didn't survive heart surgery that weekend, and I dismantled the show."

Kirby's passing was a personal loss for Jackson. The two became friends after Kirby worked on string orchestrations on three songs on Jackson's 2008 album, And Then Some. In fact, Jackson was later asked to appear at a memorial concert for Kirby in London.

"Robert's son Henry invited me to play that. The planets aligned, as I was in London that week, playing or attending shows," Jackson says. "I ended up on this incredible bill with Paul Weller, Teddy Thompson and Vashti Bunyan [all artists with whom Kirby had worked]."

Henry Kirby has donated his father's Drake string arrangements for use at the Toronto tribute, and he will be flying in for the concert. "Henry has taken on administering Robert's estate," says Jackson. "There is a value in being able to use those arrangements. He'd be within his rights to charge me 2,000 bucks, but because it's a charity night, he's donating them."

This is not the first time Jackson has organized a Nick Drake tribute. "Back in 2004, I decided to put on a tribute show at the Rivoli [in Toronto], to mark the 30th anniversary of his death," Jackson explains. "I assembled a cast of Toronto's best singer/songwriters playing his songs, [including Oh Susanna, Mia Sheard and Royal Wood]. It was quite ambitious, as we did all three [Drake] albums in sequence over three sets, and we had the local premiere of a Dutch documentary film about Nick." The concert was a sold-out success, eventually paving the way for the much larger-scale show to take place at Trinity St. Paul's.

The story of Nick Drake is one of the most fascinating and tragic in contemporary music. He recorded only three albums prior to a drug overdose in 1974, dying at age 26 (there is still doubt over whether this was an accidental overdose or a suicide). While alive, Drake was a commercial failure, with his albums selling a paltry 5,000 or so copies each. His melancholic yet gently melodic songs have proved to have incredible staying power, however. Over the past couple of decades Drake has transcended the cult figure label, as his songs have gained mass international exposure through their use in TV commercials and film soundtracks.

As Jackson notes, if Drake had stayed alive, chances are he would never have reached this level of success. "His legacy may, in one sense, be huge, but there's painfully little of it, with just three complete albums [1969's Five Leaves Left, 1970s' Bryter Layter and 1972's Pink Moon] and a final quartet of songs recorded shortly before his death," he explains. "We can wonder if Nick's 'success' in recent years would have happened at all had he lived. Is it the mystery of Nick's brief life that we love as much as the beautiful music he left behind?"

Tickets for the concert are $35 and available at Rotate This, Soundscapes and Sonic Boom, as well as at Ticketpro.