Nick Drake's producer leaves audiences in awe of his musical life
Boston born, Harvard educated, Joe Boyd looks decades younger than his years - years that have seen him as director, promoter, writer, and producer of artists as diverse as Dagmar Krause, Pink Floyd Toumani Diabate , REM, Toots and The Maytals and, most notably, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake..
In the introduction to Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree, sound engineer John Wood outlines the qualities that Boyd brought to the role of producing the young English musician. Rather than the usual production duties, Wood highlights Boyd’s gift ‘for understanding the right social and cultural place of a piece of music’.
Sitting in the front room of the Black Box, on a cold January’s night, to an audience of 40 or so, these qualities remain undimmed. It’s the day after Obama’s inauguration speech, and Boyd can only delight in highlighting the musical references made in a long day of speeches.
Most notably Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Black , White and Brown’, which is being used to highlight the changes in America.
Now if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back.
That Obama’s team are referencing the song to define the day a black President doesn’t need to ‘git back’ seems a source of pride for Boyd. For a man who made his name in 60s America promoting blues singers like Broonzy (a huge influence on Van Morrison), Boyd has a right to feel proud.
As he reads from his autobiography White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960s, Boyd, in a direct but laconic style, emphasises the depth and range of his involvement in the direction of 60s contemporary culture.
As he recounts how he worked as a folk/blues promoter in the 60s, then became production manager of the 65 Newport Jazz festival featuring 'Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Hancock, Shorter, Tyner, Sinatra and Quincy Jones' you begin feel a little in awe of all he has done.
The envy really starts in as he discusses how, at the Newport Folk festival in 65, he refused, against the wishes of traditional folkie Pete Seeger, to turn the volume down on the newly electric Dylan. Well it would do, if Boyd didn’t seem so disarmingly sharp affable about the whole thing – and all before Boyd gets round to the really intriguing parts of his history.
'Does anyone have any questions they’d like to ask? Shall I talk about Nick Drake or Sandy Denny?'
As producer of Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, Boyd made his name in the UK, and the phenomenon of Drake more than any continues to generate interest (a Heath Ledger version of 'Black Eyed Dog' is set for release this year.)
Boyd’s descriptions of hearing Drake’s music in the studio for the first time are still filled with naïve wonder at Drake’s gentle uniqueness. 'When at last John opened all the channels and we heard the full arrangement of 'Way to Blue' I almost wept with joy and relief.'
Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and Pink Floyd all followed in the 60s and this wonder and joy for the musicians he produced, is woven into the final half hour of Boyd’s reading. He fascinates the audience with anecdotes of how, while at her folk’s home, he listened with Sandy Denny to a sneak preview of Sgt Peppers' on Radio Luxembourg, and the serendipitous events that led to Denny joining Fairport.
As social history, Boyd’s book covers only the 1960s. It’s here he leaves his audience, ready to step out onto the cold 2009 January Belfast streets, warmed by one man’s belief in the music he has helped facilitate, whether it be the smallest breath of Nick Drake or the succession of Barack Obama.