Cally Callomon assesses WHEN THE DAY IS DONE: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby, compiled by Bob Stanley and newly released on CD by Ace Records.
“My musical friend, a guy named Robert Kirby, is working quite hard on arrangements for some of my songs, and seems to be pretty competent. He’s a rather splendid fellow and looks rather like Haydn or Mozart or someone being rather short and stocky with long wavy hair and rimless spectacles. However, he’s quite hip to my sort of music being quite a proficient folk singer himself…”
(Nick Drake in a letter home to his parents, Cambridge, Summer 1967)
Come the mid 1990s, having released the Nick Drake compilation Way To Blue to international acclaim and fancying myself as something of an Island Records detective, I thought it time to track down this Robert Kirby fellow. It took one telephone number from Joe Boyd to hear his chuckling voice on the phone, a man confidently aware of his brilliance but humble and kind at once; an enticing concoction and one I got to know quickly and well. Robert’s opening salvo was his idea that Island should release a boxed set of his orchestrations (he was most emphatic that these were orchestrations not arrangements) “at least two CDs’ worth” he proposed. So the quest began with my opening impudence: “well what else have you done?” I asked.
There began a friendship full of intrigue, laughter, cheese, music and plenty of cider. Ever the bon-viveur, Robert also had a rare talent essential to his work: the ability to harmonise and melt his talents into the body of work given to him to orchestrate. He submitted, he listened, yet he never allowed his natural humility to underpower his signature recipes; chucking in far more viola than is normal to warm up the bottom end, such was his admiration for reeds and the very brass he often played. One evening spent after a lengthy meal at Gabrielle Drake’s kitchen table, Robert described the Longman’s album he made in 1971 and, by now confidently refreshed, launched into one of the songs he sang on it. Out from this large man came a voice of great willowy beauty, not unlike the oboes he adored. Ever full of surprises, the end of the song beckoned silence and tears.
Contrary to popular belief, Robert was a figure Nick Drake pulled in not just because they were chums, but because Robert already had an album deal with Polydor, long before Nick’s contact with Island. Robert was a gateway into the very industry that so perplexed Nick in 1967. Kirby’s confidence in his work was never one of bluster; he acted as friend, foil and confidante to Nick, just what was needed when confronted by the daunting expertise and experience of Joe Boyd and John Wood.
“What else DID Robert do?” …I quickly found out and started to buy dusty vinyl in order to complete my unabashed fandom, and this compilation – though sadly not the two CDs Robert envisaged – is a stunning shop window to the man’s talents. You’d be forgiven in thinking this is a Robert Kirby album featuring guest singers, the track choice and running order is THAT good. Sure there are omissions – his later work post 2000 and the work Elton John (a big Kirby fan) landed him via Gus Dudgeon with the remarkable Dave Ackles, especially the stunning 1972 American Gothic album – but seeing as how ‘Montana Song’ runs to 10 minutes this, and every other omission, is perfectly excusable.
Those too cash-strapped to buy the CD, those that need convincing amidst all this hyperbole could do a great deal worse than avoid a click on the obvious: Drake’s opus ‘Introduction’ but go one song down, to the Keith Christmas song ‘Forest And The Shore’ if this doesn’t whisk you off to the Buy It Now button then all hope may be abandoned. This is a timely beautiful collection, a worthy follow up to Ace’s previous English Weather set and brought to you by the very makers of.
1. Introduction – Nick Drake
2. Forest and the Shore – Keith Christmas
3. Ophelia’s Song – Shelagh McDonald
4. I Keep a Close Watch – John Cale
5. Dancing at Whitsun – Tim Hart & Maddy Pryor
6. Rainbow River – Vashti Bunyan
7. I’ve Seen the Movie – Andy Roberts
8. White Witch – Spriguns
9. It’s My Own Way – Gillian McPherson
10. Follow On – Steve Ashley
11. Silver Threads and Golden Needles – Sandy Denny
12. Love Is a Funny Thing – Spirogyra
13. Friend to Me – Gary Shearston
14. Honour Bright – Shirley Collins
15. First Light – Richard & Linda Thompson
16. Raviole – Audience
17. Madonna Blue – Illusion
18. Gimme an Inch Girl – Ian Matthews
19. What Memories We Make – Dana Gillespie
20. Pick Up a Gun – Ralph McTell
You can find out more about/buy the compilation here.