by Stefania Ianne @stillarte
The last days of autumn in London seem to be plagued with Victorian water pipes constantly bursting and causing havoc, destroying venues and homes mainly in Islington, one of the rich northern boroughs in the city. A few years ago, while on my way to a gig, I heard the news it had just been cancelled because of a water pipe bursting. I would not want this to happen again tonight, as it is a special event that I am going to attend at Islington’s Assembly Hall. It is a gig to remember and pay homage to a talent that is no longer with us, Nick Drake. It could be wonderful, or it could be disastrous. I am not fanatical about Nick Drake, I hope the evening will help me learn more about his music. I learn that Drake was a minimalist; he really would not have wanted much more than his guitar to express his music. So, in a way, the setup tonight is far too baroque for his taste, but I believe he might have appreciated the new arrangements, should he have lived long enough to be a middle-aged man. Sadly, he did not even make it long enough to join the 27 Club.
The band on stage is unconventional, it is not a rock’n’roll setup: it is a chamber music orchestra accompanied by three singers alternating on stage and a super wide music stand holding sheets with Nick Drake’s lyrics. There is very little information online about The Color Bars Experience. I learn that they are an orchestra started in France a few years ago and made up by international, classically trained musicians with a taste for contemporary music. I discover with great sadness that last year I missed their tribute to Elliott Smith. They only performed in France for that tour, and this time they reconvened with a new set of singers to play Nick Drake’s complex and melancholic music for a handful of European dates, including this one in London.
I get to know about the concert thanks to Brian Lopez, formerly of Giant Sand, and his Twitter feed. He is one of the singers tonight, together with Midlake voice and guitar Eric Pulido and Mark Gardener of Ride. I decide there and then that I cannot miss this concert. Ride’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ is still one of my favourite songs from the 90s, but I have never seen them live, while I was lucky enough to see Eric Pulido in an acoustic set with Midlake during their Antiphon tour. I saw Brian Lopez live twice, mainly on guitar with Giant Sand and more recently with his cumbia ensemble XIXA. At first sight, the choice of singers is puzzling. Gardener is an Englishman, so Nick Drake is part of the national heritage, but what do Texan and Arizonian musicians have to do with Nick Drake’s folk tunes?
My companion and I arrive on time for the supporting solo artist, veteran musician and poet Troy Von Balthazar, formerly of Chokebore. On stage, TvB is impressive and theatrical, and he fully captivates his audience. Alone with his guitar, he commands total attention with his simple and sad tunes: ‘Do you want a happy tune? Sorry, I have none, it’s not that happy in Berlin in winter’. Although he might have one that is less depressing, he warns us. There is beauty in his sadness. The highlight of the show is ‘The Tigers’, a dark hymn to drinking. He performs it in his traditional way: with a portable stereo on his shoulder blurting out a distorted piano tune and a cha cha nut hand rattle as his rhythm section. The tempo is slow, the music fragile, the smile on his face strained: ‘I drink to keep the tigers away’. Troy Von Balthazar was one of the singers for the Elliot Smith tour. I hope The Color Bars Experience will consider touring with that performance in Europe again soon, it must have been quite something. Not all is lost though, we are lucky enough to catch this new colourful experience. The arrangements are impressive, the full orchestra is involved and no instrument is the diva. It is a group effort, although it is true that classical guitarist Alexei Khorev has his work cut for him today, given Nick Drake’s ever-changing tunings and unconventional playing style.
Nick Drake rarely performed in public, he hated it. His concerts were deserted and he seemed to do anything possible to stave off public attention. Alien to self-promotion, he seemed to live in a world of his own, and apparently his writing was heavily influenced by his drug taking. We should remember that in the ’60s people were experimenting with many types of recreational drugs, and also that the border between recreational and prescription drugs was not so well-defined, and LSD was even prescribed by medical doctors. Not sure if it is an urban legend, but apparently John Lennon and George Harrison were given their first LSD trip by their dentist. Young people experimenting with drugs in that period were like guinea pigs for a gigantic medical trial, and too many didn’t make it sane or alive, although we surely are grateful for the music many of them created. Will it ever be proven whether without drugs those artists would have been able to produce anything as beautiful, as poignant?
Brian Lopez brings the unresolved drug issue up during the performance. The appearance of Tucson-based Lopez is bellicose, self-assured, almost mean: the heavy jewellery nudges us in that direction, in contrast with his singing, which is so delicate and moving, particularly during ‘Fruit Tree’, the song in which Nick Drake expressed his frustration at being unappreciated as a musician. The bearded Eric Pulido, instead, appears candid in his unpretentious appearance, clearly uncomfortable without his guitar (‘take his guitar away from a man and he will feel naked’), and his voice is beautiful and fragile; a personal high is his rendition of pink, pink, pink, pink, ‘Pink Moon’. The last on stage is Mark Gardener, just as nervous, in a tweedy gentleman look with hat and scarf. He was born to sing Nick Drake’s songs, including many’s favourite ‘Northern Sky’. Altogether the performance is both delicate and vigorous, the singers are respectful in their interpretation, and the orchestra simply nails it. The feeling is of awe and serenity, enchantment and melancholy. The experience was worth it and should be repeated. So guys, will you bring the magic of Elliott Smith to the rest of Europe again anytime soon?