❉ The arrangements of Drake’s Admiral, curated by Bob Stanley.
“Kirby has always been in Drake’s shadow, but this collection from Ace Records, put together by compiler par excellence Bob Stanley sets out to redress this…. including various Fairports, Steeleye Spans, and other folk stalwarts like Keith Christmas and Ralph McTell. Other, lesser-known singer-songwriters also benefit from a bit of Kirby magic here. There’s even surprise appearances from the likes of John Cale and Dana Gillespie.”
This year, Nick Drake would have turned seventy. We’ll always know him as a haunted, doomed, beautiful youth who was never recognised in his time, who never made old bones. It’s arguable though that we wouldn’t know him at all if it wasn’t for his Cambridge university friend and arranger Robert Kirby – whose unmistakeable orchestral and woodwind sweeps brought Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter to vivid life. Kirby was a precociously talented arranger, combining Vaughan Williams and George Martin into something melancholy, romantic, and absolutely his own.
Kirby wasn’t old when he died prematurely in 2009, thirty-five years after Drake – but he lived a happier, fuller life. He worked with many other artists, often under Producer Sandy Robertson, and worked in a music room full of happy clutter. Unlike his more famous, and introverted friend, Kirby was a more sociable chap who loved to have a beer and play the piano. Returning to music after a sabbatical, he also lived to see his arrangements find a new audience, and worked with younger acts off the back of his previous work.
However, Kirby has always been in Drake’s shadow. The first ever collection of his arrangements from Ace Records, When the Day is Done, put together by compiler par excellence Bob Stanley sets out to redress this. The cover art is a nod to Five Leaves Left, and the album inevitably opens with a Drake track, but Introduction, the instrumental that opens Bryter Layter, is a fitting choice to kick it off. Kirby’s arrangement is the star here, carrying the melody, with Drake’s guitar the supporting act.
The rest of the collection is less familiar territory, focusing on Kirby’s work with various other Witchseason alumni, including various Fairports, Steeleye Spans, and other folk stalwarts like Keith Christmas and Ralph McTell. Other, lesser-known singer-songwriters also benefit from a bit of Kirby magic here. There’s even surprise appearances from the likes of John Cale and Dana Gillespie.
Considering just how associated Kirby is with Drake, it’s a bit of an adjustment at first to hear him arrange for other people, but Stanley’s taste is impeccable. Kirby provides an epic string sweep and mellotron chorale on Keith Christmas’s lengthy, finger-pointing hippie paranoia saga Forest And The Shore, while his lyrical score for Shelagh McDonald’s haunting Ophelia’s Song both riffs on and rivals Kirby’s Fabs favourite She’s Leaving Home.
As the album unfolds, you quickly realise why Kirby was so in demand during the 70s. The superb, but weirdly MOR I Keep A Close Watch by John Cale. The sprinklings of rite of spring magic on the full Hey-Nonny-Nonny reel of Tim Hart and Maddy Prior’s Dancing at Whitsun.
He adds cinematic, George Martin-like class to the comfy, laid-back, old-sofa vibe of ex Liverpool Scene man Andy Roberts’ I’ve Seen The Movie, and a dreamy backdrop to the Wyrd England pastoral of White Witch by Spriguns. He’s back in sweeping mode for other tracks like Richard & Linda Thompson’s First Light, and provides understated classicism to Shirley Collins’s Honour Bright. Kirby doesn’t always fall back on his usual lush bag of tricks. Faced with the unusual voice of Australian singer Gary Shearston, he opts for jack-in-the-box trills of what sounds like a hurdy gurdy, but this is a rare diversion.
Kirby goes to town most on the bonkers classical-folk instrumental suite Raviole by Audience, but still keeps a respectful distance, even when his orchestrations threaten to take over. By contrast, he may as well not be there on Ian Matthews’ Give Me An Inch Girl, a piece of incongruously smooth 70s soft rock, where he’s reduced to holding down two notes on a string machine keyboard, low in the mix, arguably the only track here to represent a waste of his time and talent.
Ending with Ralph McTell’s deceptively jaunty-sounding anti-war protest Pick Up A Gun (think Caravan’s Golf Girl with a conscience), When the Day is Done leaves you feeling a bit better acquainted with Robert Kirby. It rewards with each listen, with little details coming to the fore each time. Take a bow, Robert.
❉ When The Day Is Done – The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby is released by Ace Records on 26 February 2017, RRP £12.99. Click here to order.