One of music’s most prolific and gifted songwriters still finds joy in familiar spaces while exploring new ones.
By Steve Houk
So what does Richard Thompson, one of music’s most unique, gifted and eclectic singer/songwriters — and lest we forget, an astonishingly good guitar player and oh yes, also an Officer of the Order of the British Empire bestowed by the Queen herself — do for thrills as he approaches 70?
I mean, this is a guy who who the L.A. Times said was “the best rock songwriter after Dylan and the best guitarist since Hendrix,” a guy who is still so sharp, vital and dynamic, playing and writing music as powerfully as ever, as evidenced by 2015’s Still as well as his recent Acoustic Classics Vol II + Rarities release, and has a record in the can that’s due out this summer. With a catalog behind him comprised of 14 solo studio and two live albums — in addition to six studio albums credited to Richard and ex-wife Linda Thompson, and five studio albums as a member of folk rock pioneers Fairport Convention — Thompson can still churn out his one-in-a-billion type of folk-tinged troubadour rock at a time when many musicians are waning.
But at the moment, actually for about the last year, he’s chosen a different type of art that many musicians try — U2, John Mellencamp, Jimmy Buffett and Matthew Sweet come to mind — to see if their brand of expression will translate seamlessly to the stage. Knowing the brilliant and evocative imagery that Thompson conveys with his songs, it is sure to be something very special indeed.
“I’ve been working on a musical play for a while,” Thompson told me as he prepared for a solo acoustic tour that brings him to the Birchmere on April 4th. “I’m quite excited by the prospect of it. It’s a dream I had, kind of a ‘Greek tragedy’ in the sense that a family is faced with an impossible dilemma, that whichever way they jump, there is pain and disaster. I’m enjoying the music. I think the music’s very strong. I think the story’s very strong, but it is kind of dark.”
As Thompson works the hard task of actually getting his sure-to-be-memorable creation to be staged, he continues to travel the globe bringing his wondrous and magical sound to devoted audiences, many of whom have ridden on his 1952 Vincent Black Lightning with him since back when Red Molly was around. And when asked what brings him the most joy these days, clearly performing in front of an audience, like he has done thousands of times before, is what keeps Richard Thompson exhilarated at this stage in his marvelous career.
“I love playing live, I love that transaction with an audience,” Thompson said with his distinct high pitched English cadence that sounds just like his singing voice. “I don’t think that that ever goes away. The nicest thing is to play to an audience and feel that you’ve communicated something, that you’ve communicated some emotion, some idea. That’s still the biggest thrill. That’s what keeps me out on the road, and a lot of people out on the road. It’s just that real human transaction.”
Since he broke ground with Fairport Convention in the 60’s, as well as when he started his solo career in the late 70’s, Thompson has been known to poetically set fire to his guitar with blazing rock riffs and stunning solos, and is revered worldwide for his electric playing. But in many ways, his acoustic work is easily as memorable and powerful, and in some ways, conveys his style more vividly. And it’s the unbridled intimacy of that music that translates so well to the live shows he treasures.
“I love the acoustic form. I didn’t start doing until probably the late ’70s, but I’ve developed a kind of attitude to it, an approach to it. I just really enjoy that transaction, it’s a great thing for me. And I think an acoustic show is always more intimate for sure. Lyrics are more significant in acoustic shows, people can hear the lyrics better because people can absorb the lyrics better. I think a band show is a bit more visceral, it’s a bit more in your face, a bit more rock and roll, and potentially there’s an excitement level with a band that’s different. They’re definitely different kinds of shows. I think with an acoustic show, you’re trying to draw the audience into you.”
Like many of his peers, Thompson fell in love with the attitude a guitar brought with it, even at a very young age, he was taken by it’s power. That combined with his father’s love of the instrument — his Dad had seen Django Reinhardt play in Glasgow in the 1930s and played guitar himself — clearly set a sort of destiny in motion that would begin a path he would follow to this day.
“(The guitar) kind of came into the house, my father was given it for free because it was broken. He was a carpenter, so he fixed it up and glued it, and put it back together again, just so I could really get a cheap Spanish guitar. Originally, he was going to play it, or my sister was going to play it, but I kind of grabbed it and wouldn’t let anybody else have it. I suppose I was young when rock and roll came along. I was probably five or six years old when rock and roll started. Everybody in rock and roll played or posed with a guitar. That was the cool instrument. I thought, well, I have to get one of those. At the same time, my father had been an amateur guitar player, he loved Django, had his records and many others. He kind of stopped with it by the time I was born I think. And I was asking for a guitar, I think, from the age of six, and I got one of those toy plastic ones for Christmas. Until finally, I got a real one when I was eleven I think.”
Even though he was born in Notting Hill, West London, Thompson’s music has always seemed to have a Scottish tinge, with swirling, almost medieval melodies wafting through many of his most memorable songs. Seems that’s not a surprise considering what was on the bookshelves in his house, and it’s those evocative pages that helped foster his lyrical affection and eventual prowess.
“I grew up in a house that had shelves of books of Scottish poetry and Scottish ballads, so I was reading all these ballads from 1500, 1600, 1700. All when I was a kid, like a teenager, pre-teenager even. Even though that wasn’t on the front burner, that wasn’t as exciting as Gene Vincent, I realized that I kind of knew the stuff. I had a kind of background in writing songs in that style, so it all fit together very easily. And Fairport Convention, from the very beginning, was a lyric band. We loved lyrics, at a time when lyric was becoming more respectable in popular music. When Dylan went electric, suddenly, that opened the door for pop music lyrics to become adult, and deal with serious themes. That was a big turning point.”
Thompson will also do a swing through mostly Southern states this year opening up for Jason Isbell, which for fans of great songwriting will be almost too much to take. In some ways, it’s a modern day rootsman pairing with a longtime one, creating a truly one of a kind bill.
“Hopefully the audience will survive the experience,” Thompson says with a likely wink. “But really, I think what gets called Americana is a very interesting phenomenon. I think it’s a sense of the tradition that goes back into the Appalachians. I think there are wonderful artists in that genre like Jason, he’s a very rootsy kind of a country artist. If there’s a definition of Americana, he’s pretty close to the definition of it. He’s a great artist, he’s a great writer, he’s a great singer, and has become at this point very successful. I’m really happy for him.”
Not only is Thompson enormously content with his place in life right now, he beams with pride when talking about his two kids, Teddy Thompson and Kami Thompson, both respected musicians in their own right.
“I’m incredibly proud. You’re always going to be proud of your kids, and in some cases, you’re going to make excuses for them, because they’re your kids, but they’re not quite good enough. In the case of Teddy and Kami, I’m proud of them and I don’t have to make any excuses because they really are great musicians. Teddy and Kami are both great singers, great songwriters. I’m super, super proud.”
Richard Thompson performs solo acoustic with special guest Joan Shelley on Wednesday April 4th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. The show is sold out.