Bruce Elder chats to Richard Thompson -the folk enigma
who raises more Editorial questions than he answers.
Thompson is an enigma. Who today, apart from a few unreconstituted
folkies, has heard of Davey Graham, Nic Jones, Ashley Hutchings,
Dave Swarbrick or Dave Cousins? Yet there was a time, back in
the late 1960s-early 1970s, when they, along with Thompson,
were all regarded as doyens of the booming British folk scene.
As the rest of his peers Icon have slipped into madness, anonymity
and dreariness, Thompson has persisted. He has not only persisted
his fan base now is as passionate and committed as Dylan's.
They love him. They know every word of every song and they love
the man with an unambiguous adulation and passion. Of course,
there is reason for this passion. Thompson really is a very
special musician. He writes songs of extraordinaryhonesty. Few
popular musicians have tackled the love song with such clarity
and pessimism. Who among his fans will ever forget Advertise
the opening to his 1986 song Jennie: "Trouble fitness sheeted
- online becomes you, it cuts you down to my size"; or the dark
chorus line: "I thought you were saying'Good luck', you were
He is a
master guitarist with a highly individual style, who has appeared
on albums by performers as different as Tim Finn,Elvis Costello
,David Thomas, David Byrne, Crowded House, Linda Ronstadt and
Bonnie Raitt. Apart from being a unique talent, Thompson is
a true rarity. He started his musical life as a rock 'n' roller,
was embraced by folk music (most notably as the guitarist with
Fairport Convention) as it began to go electric, absorbed and
loved the English folk tradition in a visceral rather than an
academic way, and then emerged as a solo artist capable of bridging
the two traditions in a way which makes Dylan's electric/folk
experiments look simple and naive. If you listen, for example,
to Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, you will hear the
story of a biker and his girlfriend (a very rock 'n' roll theme)
turned into a timeless folk song about love, death and rebellion.
Listen to the delicate Beeswing and be amazed at the way Thompson
can take a contemporary situation - in this case the craziness
of the '60s - and turn it into a transcendental folk song about
freedom and love.
all this, he is now a man searching for a recording contract
in the United States. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles
(he has lived there for nearly 20 years), he explains: "I
am no longer with Capitol in the USA. At the moment there is
a lot of reassessing of what a record company actually is. The
fact that people can do things online and can do things in other
ways has forced them to reassess what they are doing. The multinationals
can only sell Britney and Whitney, Mariah and Shania. "It's
a time of change. People are starting to ask why they have never
made any money from records. There are now record companies
which are thinking about offering partnership deals. "I would
certainly like to have some income from records. I need that.
A starving musician has to increase his income stream somehow.
I think you could sell half a million and get dropped in the
US at the moment. I've heard stories about it happening. It
has become very strange and very corporate."
it would seem, the corporate priorities of the multinationals
have ignored creativity and talent. It is tempting to ask: "If
they can drop someone as talented as Richard Thompson then what
on Earth are record companies looking for?" But Thompson, who
is still with EMI through the rest of the world, is not concerned
by this temporary setback.
"I think there are these phases in
the music business," he says. "There
are times when you look at the alternatives. It is hard not
to think at the moment, 'If radio is this bad then something
else will emerge'. A subculture will grow. There are so many
artists out there, and their audience, who need to be served.
How do you find your audience? You have to use other means.
When that happens often, the more creative times are around
the corner. Perhaps it means there will be larger independent
labels. The alternatives are there to be developed and that
is what is going to happen."
In the past
18 months, convinced that his last album, Mock
Tudor, was worth promoting, he has toured virtually non-stop
both in a solo acoustic format and with his band. "It's
just because I believed in that record," he explains,
and when asked what local audiences are likely to hear in his
concerts, he adds: "They will hear as
many tracks from Mock Tudor as they can stand." And what
is Thompson going to do without a US recording contract? He
doesn't seem terribly worried. "I may
set up my own record label. I am certainly looking at that possibility."
I'm not on the RT list anymore but I thought a few of you Fairporters
would like to hear of RT's gig in Sydney last night. Currently
touring Australia RT played Sydney's Enmore Theatre, where he
also appeared on his previous tour 4 years ago. The Enmore is
an old place a bit the worse for wear with no luxuries such
as air conditioning or seats that don't give you a pain in the
arse by mid gig. BUT when RT plays his Sydney fans would go
& watch him anywhere anytime anyplace & the Enmore was chocka.
As RT opined through the gig - lots of old chums out there I
see! I didn't note the set list but it included songs from as
far back as the early 70's "Great Valerio","Dimming of the Day",
right thru to about 4 tracks from Mock Tudor. He also rolled
out 2 humorous little ditties recently penned perhaps just for
the tour. The first, to the scottish tune sometimes known as
"Marie's Wedding", but lyrically about Madonna's recent wedding
in a scottish castle was bloody hilarious. The second titled
"I agree with Pat Metheny" ("Kenny's talents are too teeny")
is about comments made by Pat Metheny on his website in regard
to the sacrilege of Kenny G recently heard overdubbing himself
onto a Lois Armstrong track. What can one say about RT that
hasn't been said so many times. Nothing really. I went with
a mate who hadn't even heard of RT before last night - his first
comment after the gig was - "Can that bloke play or what - I
thought there were 3 guitarists up there - when is the new best
of album coming out?". Yes RT solo with just his giutar, songs,
humour & stage prescence, can win fans no worries. After 2 hours
& two ample encores we rolled out into a rainy & steamy Sydney
summer evening hoping it won't be another 4 years before RT's
back in town.
Have a good one,
Frank , Sydney.
FROM THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Review: David Lawrence
mild-mannered English guitar hero wondered aloud during the
first of two encores on Saturday night whether there was anything
anyone wanted to hear, there were a dozen or so instant suggestions.
He has been recording for close to 35 years, and the back catalogue
is extensive. He had started with Sights and Sounds of London
Town (the opening words are "Gillian she's" although my kids
insist he sings "jelly and cheese") from his latest album, Mock
Tudor, and much of the show was recent rather than vintage Thompson.
He has a fervent and faithful following and everything was warmly
received. But the older stuff went down best. Requests for the
exuberant Valerie and the haunting Dimming of the Day (which
slightly overstretched the serviceable vocals) were dutifully
answered, although he didn't hark back as far as his Fairport
Convention days. No Tear-stained Letter either, or Shoot Out
the Lights or Hokey-Pokey or Walking On the Wire or Al Bowlly's
in Heaven ... and nothing from his timeless collection of instrumentals,
Strict Tempo. Still, what he played was a treat because he plays
swear he had a couple of assistants, but it was all from his
own digits (except for an occasional touch of reverb) as he
coaxed or wrung the full range from an acoustic Lowden. For
someone whose lyrics have their fair share of death and despair,
he comes over as a genial character, and there were a couple
of jokey numbers, one updating Marie's Wedding to take in Madonna's
nuptials and the other satirising Kenny G's "duet" with Louis
Armstrong ("a meeting of great minds, how nice/like Einstein
and Sporty Spice"). No one should have felt short-changed after
a near two-hour set. It is just a pity he couldn't do a second
show and correct the omissions. And then maybe a third ...
songs, great singing, from a true troubadour
Reviewed by BRUCE ELDER - Enmore Theatre, February 5
a great concert is ... from a Sports News such an artless and
effortless experience. All you need are a bunch of great songs,
some great musicianship, a singer with a great voice and an
enthusiastic audience to applaud and cheer at the appropriate
such a collision of circumstances is so rare that, if you're
lucky and a regular concert attendee, you'll experience it once
or twice in a decade. This was one of those experiences. Richard
Thompson, pared down to a mesmerising minimalism (dressed in
black and accompanied only by his acoustic guitar), delivered
two hours of material he has built up over nearly 30 years.
It was a near-flawless show.
If you came
along wanting to be seduced by Thompson's guitar playing you
would have Cars spent most of the night staring at the stage
trying to equate what was being Classifieds played with what
was emanating from the speakers. For goodness sake, most of
the time the man sounds asthough he's accompanied by a guitar
orchestra. He playsbass, rhythm and lead guitar at the same
time on the one instrument. And, if that isn't enough, every
songoffers opportunities for some truly heart-stopping improvisation.
If you have heard all these songs before -and who among Richard
Thompson's fans doesn't know From Galway to Graceland, Dimming
of the Day, The Great Valerio, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
and Beeswing, just to name a few - then you sit transfixed as
Thompson, who must have sung them all 1,000 times, finds new
life and meaning, new nuance and subtlety as he gently reaches
beyond the old recorded versions.
If you came
along for the singing and the lyrics you would be equally satisfied.
Thompson has a fine, deeply passionate voice ideally suited
to his songs, which range from in-your-face the rock'n'roll
(he took I Feel So Good at breakneck pace) to delicate balladeering
(Beeswing and Dimming of the Day were both highlights). His
lyric writing is steeped in the English folk ballad tradition,
embracing both story songs and hard-edged ruminations on human
frailty and the realities of love.
if you want humour, Thompson, who was quite serious and po-faced
the last time he was here, has a couple of marvellous throwaway
numbers which will Year, Pt 2: never make it on to record. There's
his scathing and witty attack on Madonna's Y Scottish wedding
(complete with suitably Scottish accompaniment) and hissatiric
tour de force I Agree with Pat Methany, in which he lambasts
Kenny G for daring to digitally duet with the long-dead Louis
It all works
because it is done with unpretentious sincerity, great virtuosity,
extraordinary musical inventiveness and an easy warmth. Thompson
is about as close as the electronic global village will ever
get to a medieval troubadour. He comes to town, plays his songs,
enthrals and subtly educates his audience, and then moves on.
At the end of the night you are left with the extraordinary
sense that this two hours was little more than the tip of the
iceberg. Where were I Mis-understood, Al Bowlly's in Heaven,
Two Left Feet and all those glorious songs from the Fairport
Convention days? Then you realise that if Thompson immediately
came back onto stage and did another two-hour set it could be
full of the great songs he omitted from this remarkable set.
From Shane Youl
Theatre Monday, February 5, 2001
An audience tape exists of this show, quality excellent
When The Spell Is Broken
Crawl Back (Under My Stone)
Turning Of The Tide
Ghost Of You Walks
Dry My Tears And Move On
1952 Vincent Black Lightning
The Great Valerio
I Feel So Good
I Agree With Pat Metheny
Walking The Long Miles Home
From Galway To Graceland
Sights And Sounds Of London
Word Unspoken Sight Unseen
Dimming Of The Day
Waltzing's For Dreamers
Wall Of Death