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

“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
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

4•1•1 Richard Thompson plays 1,000 Years of
, accompanied by Judith Owen, on Sat., May 12, 8 p.m., at
the Lobero. Call 963-0761 or visit


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.