The music of Nick Drake is alive, well and living in Toronto. That was vividly illustrated in this tribute concert featuring some of Canada's leading singer-songwriters performing the songs of the late, great English folk icon.
The event was organized by local songsmith and Drake zealot Luke Jackson as a charity fundraiser, so it was pleasing to observe a good-sized crowd. The choice of venue was perfect, as Trinity St. Paul's superior acoustics did justice to the eight-piece string section used to augment many of the songs. In fact, the event was co-billed as "the string arrangements of Robert Kirby," and their use (donated by the family of the late Nick Drake arranger) definitely added to the occasion.
The evening was fittingly launched with "Introduction," a short and charming instrumental performed by David Celia, whose strings drew from Drake's "Hazey Jane." Aside from frequent guitar tunings (Drake's songs are notorious for their complexity), proceedings went smoothly, with each guest playing two songs. Local newcomer Brent Jackson (the Junction) overcame obvious nerves to deliver a superb version of "River Man," a highlight of an evening with almost no lowlights.The ace backing band of drummer Don Kerr, bassist Maury LaFoy, guitarist Kurt Swinghammer and pianist David Matheson were occasionally joined by horn and flute players, adding real depth and energy to material that, in Drake's hands, leaned heavily to the fragile and melancholy.
As if to prevent things from getting too reverential, eccentric genius Mary Margaret O'Hara came in to blow things up with a stunning free-form take on "Black Eyed Dog," featuring her unique avant-garde vocal noises. Acclaimed folk veteran Stephen Fearing explained that the chance to perform with live strings for the first time clinched his appearance, and he delivered a lovely take on "Which Will." In addition to dressing impressively for the occasion, both Emm Gryner and Kevin Kane (Grapes of Wrath) used the string section judiciously in their selections, and Kane's electric guitar helped propel "Northern Sky."
Host Jackson launched the second half of the show in fine fashion, especially on "Time of No Reply," while Kevin Fox, leader of the string section, was deservedly given a chance to shine vocally too. The evening's surprise guest turned out to be Royal Wood. After declaring his love for O'Hara, he dazzled on two songs that showcased that rich voice delightfully. Closing out the night was Swinghammer, described by Jackson as "Toronto's second biggest Nick Drake fan." He used strings and two flute players on "Fruit Tree," then all the guests joined in for backing vocals on "Poor Boy," a fittingly up-tempo song to end with. The glut of tribute concerts out there may be a potentially dangerous phenomenon, but this was one that did true justice to its inspiration.