New Moon: Bay Area musicians collaborate in Nick Drake tribute

Nick Drake Rickshaw Stop
Jan Flatley-Feldman/Staff

Nick Drake’s ability to find a simplistic beauty that eminated a true sense of purity is what sets him apart from other folk artists. His last album Pink Moon is the unexpected and melancholically beautiful offspring of Nick Drake’s final years of depression and self-imposed isolation. His musical work acts as but a small window into a tortured soul as well as a mind where most thoughts and emotions were guarded rather than shared.

The Rickshaw Stop held a tribute concert on Sunday, where Pink Moon was performed in full by over 50 Bay Area musicians. The event aimed to revitalize a life cut short by exploring the musical potential of Drake’s genius.  Each band played one song off the album, making for 11 group transitions on a single cramped stage (executed by some kind of a logistical miracle).

The event’s musical director Darren Johnston (who also plays the trumpet) introduced the groups via a pre-recorded video that shared each artist’s musical history and inspiration for re-imagining their song off Pink Moon. Ultimately, the night was as much about celebrating local music as it was about the late great folk singer.

Johnston’s first appearance on stage was a performance of “Road” in a jazz trio. Their music transported us to the smoky jazz clubs of the beat generation with a real sense of Kerouacian cool. The jazz player’s attire had a carefree formality to it, a balance that many fashionistas strive for to the last painstaking detail, but one that Johnston pulled off in a way that felt simply classic.  A slim, wrinkled grey suit wrapped his wiry starving-musician’s frame as a charcoal fedora sprouted exactly above his forehead, just where you’d find hair or a scalp for men of lesser stylistic prowess. As for his musical act, the man played his trumpet with a timeless quality reminiscent of ’50s heart-throb Chet Baker (minus the heroin).

Saxophonist David Boyce came on stage, introduced by the omnipresent pre-recorded Johnston, and shared collegiate tales of dorm-room make out sessions, where his girlfriend selected Pink Moon as mood music — stories that were enough to make even current college students anticipatorily nostalgic.

After a short pause, he pierced through the silence with the three searing notes of Drake’s “Horn” that formed a sinusoidal pattern of disarming highs, followed by melancholic lows, just before bringing us to a humble base note.  Boyce looped the cyclical pattern with a steady bass drone, then with a single light shining above the artist, he closed his eyes and transcended into a series of metamorphic arpeggios. Using an arsenal of effects pedals, he warped his experimental brass rendition into an epic Zeldian interlude of  8-bit distortion.

It was multi-instrumentalist Freddi Price who gave the best Nick Drake impersonation with his travelin’ blues rendition of “Parasite.”  Price transmuted Drake’s guitar notes through the church-organ rings of his mini-piano, which brought a cohesive continuity between originally finger-picked notes, introducing a flowing dream-like quality to the mystic melody.

Price sung with an uncanny resonating force for such a small, narrow-shouldered man, pulling from the nether regions of his gut to project the song’s climactic line “I am a parasite of this town” with a gusto unknown to the late Drake. His vocal persona had the raspy grain of a weather-beaten traveler, with a deep-seeded forlornness that was echoed out by some unexplainable internal strength — a voice, one might even imagine, that could have belonged to an older Drake.