Richard Thompson’s Tour of Western Pop
by D.J. Palladino
Forget what you know about cover bands — Richard Thompson’s tops them all. While sparse — with only a percussionist, himself on acoustic guitar, and the occasional backup singer — Thompson’s band is also grand, with two hours of Western Euro-centric secular fun drawn from the last millennium’s hits. He calls this epic journey 1,000 Years of Popular Music and it’s a show, playing this Friday at the Lobero as part of Sings Like Hell, that includes 16th-century Italian dance music, Durham coalfield complaints against scabs, minor classics from the tall-ships era, The Who, Squeeze, and a little number called “Oops! I Did It Again,” made popular by a famed chanteuse known as Britney Spears. Cool — but why?
“Like so many wonderful innovations, it started with Playboy,” said Thompson, speaking on the phone from his adopted Los Angeles home. Around when the 20th century slipped into the 21st, the magazine was asking for the greatest songs of the millennium. Thompson thought, “Do they really mean 1,000 years? … Well, I’m going to start at 1000 ad in my list. And so I did and worked slowly and inexorably to this century. I sent in my list and, of course, they didn’t print it. Far too subversive.”
The list, however, lived on as a performance concept, so when the Getty asked him to do a show “of things one doesn’t often do onstage,” he figured it “would be an interesting idea if I could pull it off. Obviously it’s a bit far-reaching and I’m not qualified to perform a lot of the music, but I thought I’d have a go at it. And it was, in fact, a great success.”
Rock of Ages Of course, Thompson, who sells out his annual Lobero visits, is very qualified to play anything. Born to a musical family in West London in 1949, Thompson the teenager joined the British folk-rock troupe Fairport Convention, which toured America in 1971. He met his wife Linda then, and the two performers teamed until 1982 when they recorded the great album Shoot Out the Lights, and then divorced. Richard continued writing (more than 400 songs by his count), performing, as well as producing the occasional movie soundtrack, like Grizzly Man for Werner Herzog.
The oldies show has added variety to his almost constant touring. “It’s a great occasional thing to do. We do a few in a row and then stop.” A CD has been available at concerts and on the Web site (a more recent DVD will be out in a few months), and fans will see it all live Friday. “I really like the shape of the show right now,” he said. “I don’t think there are any big gaps. Well, perhaps 1520 is a bit suspect. For a long time we were looking for something around 1519, and I think we’ve cracked that now.”
He admits that the show reflects personal tastes, but it reflects a great deal of personal research, too. “Some of the songs are fairly well known. ‘Summer Is Icummen In,’ you know, is a good song and it’s the earliest song in the canon in the language; it’s a really intricate piece of music for the time. But on the whole, some of them are perhaps not so popular, maybe a bit idiosyncratic and took a bit more digging to find — those are a bit more rewarding for the audience if they take the time to really listen to them. There are some real gems in there. Still, we’re able to play a piece of opera by Purcell, we can do some Gilbert and Sullivan, we can do some swing jazz, we can even suggest a larger ensemble occasionally.”
I confessed to loving the Britney Spears song. He concurred, “It’s fun to play because of the irony of it, of us performing it and performing it in a different way; it’s a nice one for us to finish the show. That song has a very 16th-century chord sequence — by bizarre coincidence it happens it’s like Italian dance music from 15-something. So at the end of the show we perform the song, pretty much like Britney does it, only about an octave lower of course, and then we do it in the style of 16th-century dance music and it brings it all back full circle.” Of course, I knew about the chord progressions. Just testing, really.
Thompson said the concert pleases crowds, even adding in a history lesson. “Some people ask for their money back,” he said. “That’s not what they came for and that’s fair enough. There’s usually only about one of those per show. People on the whole tend to be forewarned; it’s prominent on the ticket. You know, there will be other shows and you will be able to hear that music.”
Uninitiated music lovers owe themselves a trip to Thompson’s world. The great improvisational guitarist Henry Kaiser, who sometimes produces Thompson, thinks it’s three things. Thompson is technically in everything from Jimi Hendrix to George Van Epps and James Burton. “And that means everything from bending notes to polyphonic voices,” he said. “The second thing is the ideas he brings to the guitar. In one bar of his music there might be a highland bagpipe reel, a contemporary classical music idea, as well as a blues vocal.” But the third thing is nine parts perspiration. “Richard works all the time,” said Kaiser. “When he’s home and not writing music, he’s working on the guitar, some problem, something. And the thing is you might hear one-third of the stuff he’s worked out. The reason a Richard Thompson concert is so good is that he worked so hard on it, that you always hear something new.”
Thompson himself credits a simple poetic yearning. “I wish I could do it all the time. But what I’m trying to do is create a certain stillness. You know there’s even a kind of stillness in rock ’n’ roll that I try to communicate. It goes from my heart to the heart of the audience. When people say I enjoyed that concert, it really touched me, I think, well, that’s fantastic. I think that most nights you get a feeling that between you and the audience something has passed, and that’s the best feeling in the world.”
4•1•1 Richard Thompson plays 1,000 Years of Music, accompanied by Judith Owen, on Sat., May 12, 8 p.m., at the Lobero. Call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com.