Richard Thompson (or RT) is one my favourite songwriters, singers and guitarists. His shows are exercises in musicality. He has a huge repertoire of classic material spanning from his roots in Fairport Convention in the 1960s through to the present day. The gig sounded beautiful, the sight-lines were excellent and the musicianship was excellent.
And yet it felt it had a very small element of something missing.
The evening was somewhat celebratory. The impending 50th anniversary of the founding of Fairport will be the source of retrospective documentaries, starting on Radio 2. Thompson has just picked up a Lifetime Achievement award at the UK Americana Awards. He is about to release the second volume of his “Acoustic Classics” LPs, the first, as RT confessed on stage, a surprising success.
As ever with Thompson, the setlist brings disappointment and surprise in equal measure. The disappointment that so many of his own songs will have to be waylaid to accommodate a reasonable length of concert. The surprise of unexpected gems intermingled with the usual suspects. The latter category included a lean “Shoot Out The Lights”, a passionate “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (introduced as “a love triangle – boy/girl/obsessive object”) and a defiant “Wall of Death.” The surprises were a smattering of (to my ears) new material. “Tear Down The Hippodrome” was similar paean to “Al Bowllys In Heaven”, a yearning for a Saturday evening ending in a “drink and something greasy”. “Crocodile Tears” was more of Thompson’s Costello-esque witty wordplay, something that he doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for.
Rather that the electric trio gig that I saw at the Royal Festival Hall in 2015, this was a solo show format with some help from Siobhan Kennedy, from Liverpool by Nashville. Siobhan joined RT for harmonies on a joyous “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” and a gorgeous “She Never Could Resist A Winding Road”.
Some quick words about Thompson the guitarist. He still astonishes me. His ability to drive a tune rhythmically whilst inventively embellishing the harmonies is incredible. His use of dischord, drones and open strings shows how he continues to build on his folk beginnings. The opening “Bathsheba Smiles” featured effortless Robert Fripp like patterns. “I Misunderstood” paid homage to Dinosaur Jr’s grungy new wave cover version on the “Beat The Retreat” tribute album released in 1994. Thompson has stated that he treats the acoustic and electric guitars as different instruments, bringing a broader set of sounds and harmonies on the unplugged six string.
Thompson encored with “Fergus Laing”, his commentary on Donald Trump. He wrote the song when Trump was just a property developer screwing up the world in his own image before he decided to run for the Presidency. RT confessed that he was adding verses on a daily basis:
Fergus Laing builds and builds, yet small is his erection
Fergus Laing has a fine head of hair, when the wind is in the right direction
The concert was hosted curated by Whisperin’ Bob Harris, who having become a household name in the 1970s on the Old Grey Whistle Test is now a DJ on BBC Radio 2 and an advocate for folk and country music.
Harris has used the Byzantine influenced Cadogan Hall for his Under The Apple Tree curated mini festival before. The building was saved from a fate as a luxury mansion for Mohammed Al Fayed by Cadogan Estates around the turn of the Millennium and provides a very comfortable and well appointed venue for the evening. Harris has a series of artists perform in his garden under the eponymous tree and records them for his Youtube channel.
We were greeted in the lobby by Colter Wall’s traditional American folk, showing his Woody Guthie and Johnny Cash influences.
Moving through to the hallway, the main support was a solo Emily Barker (without her Red Clay Halo). She was standing in for Wildwood Kin who had been struck down by illness.
Originally from Australia, Emily has been based in the UK for some years now. Her set featured a couple of tracks with open guitar tunings which put me in mind of Laura Marling’s “Once I Was An Eagle”. “Sister Goodbye” was a Nashville composed tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and was played at the piano as a driving blues number. Emily is probably best know for “Nostalgia”, written about Melbourne but used as the theme tune for Sir Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Swedish detective, Wallender.
It was those opening acoustic tracks that I enjoyed the most and “Little Deaths” in particular. The version here was recorded at Hackney’s Toerag Studios.
I’ve had a busy week and have only just finished writing about the evening. Looking back, I’m not quite feeling the love I’ve felt at other Richard Thompson gigs. It was still a fantastic evening but there was a tiny bit of edge missing.
It strikes me that RT is stuck between a rock and a hard place at present. The gig was of a very high quality. It wasn’t cheap though at £45 a ticket but that got you a premium seat in a premium venue.
Any maybe there’s the rub. The audience were very well heeled. If I’m being honest too, I was one of the younger members and, god damn it, I’m almost 50. RT hasn’t been opened up to become the kind of musical icon that his back catalogue deserves, a Dylan or a Cohen. Equally he hasn’t been adopted by a younger crowd in the way that Shirley Collins or Michael Chapman have recently.
I enjoyed his last album “Still” which was produced by Jeff Tweedy. But it didn’t quite take the risks that I was hoping a Wilco produced RT album might (and I’m a massive Wilco fan).
If you ask me, the next RT record should still be recorded with Wilco in their loft.
Just get Nels Cline to do the honours. Sparks really would fly.
Interesting write up on local man RT. I hadn’t noticed you mention Michael Chapman before – I’d like to hear you say more about him.
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Thanks for the feedback. I must confess I’ve got some catching up to do with Michael Chapman myself – a long time before I could write authoritatively on the man.
Thanks for the review. Your comment about RT’s well-heeled, rather elderly following struck a chord, as others have been expressing concerns with his current management’s propensity to milk his market with high ticket prices, meet-and-greets etc.
It’s hard to say though what he/they should be doing differently. He has never slipped into the kind of obscurity that allows people to celebrate ‘rediscovering’ the likes of Chapman and Collins. The quality of his recorded output has never faltered, but he hasn’t got the platinum disc back catalogue that keeps other ‘heritage artists’ in the public consciousness.
I’m afraid we’ll only really start to miss him, and perhaps to celebrate him appropriately, when he’s gone. And that may not be for a good long while! Hurrah for that; meantime I’ll look forward to my next £45 ticket.
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Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
I think there a few things RT could do in the UK particularly.
Firstly, selective festivals (Green Man, End of the Road, Larmer Tree etc) would expose him to a younger (and possibly hipper) audience.
Then linkups with people like Rough Trade for instores and exclusive vinyl etc would serve a similar purpose.
That said, he appears to be happy and comfortable ploughing his current furrow and his audience will stay loyal.
Maybe his children are for the hipsters?!