You may not know his name but for nearly half a century Richard Thompson has been performing and recording music. Although the British born guitar player has never attained stardom, his songs have been covered by the likes of R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, and the Pointer Sisters. Consequently, Thompson has steadily built himself an audience of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. This fan base came out in full force over the weekend in Boston for a performance at the Wilbur Theatre in support of his new album Still (produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco), which was released yesterday.
Thompson got his start in 1967 with the group Fairport Convention. In its original incarnation, Fairport Convention was basically a rock ’n’ roll cover band and its sound was often compared to Jefferson Airplane. Fairport Convention performed and recorded songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emitt Rhodes, Leonard Cohen, and Tim Buckley. But gradually Fairport Convention shifted toward traditional English folk music and original compositions inspired by traditional folk. This transition would begin on its second album What We Did on Our Holidays while subsequent albums Unhalfbricking, Liege & Lief, and Full House are considered traditional folk standards. Thompson’s most notable composition is “Meet on the Ledge,” which is considered Fairport Convention’s unofficial theme song. It always marks the closing of the band’s annual Cropredy Festival, which is Britain’s most prominent outdoor music festival.
Thompson would leave Fairport Convention in 1971. This may have been due in part to the lingering effects of an auto accident that killed his girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn as well as the band’s 19-year-old drummer, Martin Lamble, shortly after the recording of Unhalfbricking. Thompson would embark upon a solo career in 1972 with the release of Henry the Human Fly, which was a commercial disaster and is believed to be the worst selling album in the history of Warner Brothers.
However, during the recording of Henry the Human Fly, Thompson would become involved with back-up singer Linda Peters and would marry her later that year. Over the next decade, Richard and Linda Thompson would record six albums together. The most successful of these was their final album Shoot Out the Lights (1982), which earned the pair an American audience for the first time. Ironically, this success would come as their marriage was coming apart. But time heals all wounds. Last year, Richard and Linda Thompson joined their son Teddy and daughter Kamila on an album simply called Family.
The most ambitious musical project Thompson undertook was his 2003 live album, 1000 Years of Popular Music. In 1999, Playboy asked various artists to name the best songs of the millennium. When it came to Thompson, he actually named songs going back to the 11th century. Although Playboy did not publish Thompson’s list, it would give him tremendous musical inspiration. The result would include everything from the medieval chant of “Sumer Is Incumen In” to Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again.”
One would not expect a devout Muslim like Thompson to cover Britney Spears. During his marriage with Linda, they became interested in Sufi mysticism and would eventually convert to Islam. This would result in a three-year hiatus from music during which they lived in Sufi communes. Yet Thompson should never be confused with Cat Stevens. For one thing, Stevens went decades without making music while Thompson’s absence was brief by comparison. When Stevens returned to music he initially played only religious music and without instrumentation while Thompson’s music not only remained secular in nature it would be inconceivable for him to be separated from his guitars.
When Thompson did write a song about his faith in 2002 called “Outside of the Inside” he stated, “That song is imagining what these extremists, this fringe of so-called Islam, were saying of western civilization and it’s me thinking, ‘Well, I like western civilization. Charlie Parker. Einstein. Shakespeare. Not all bad…’” You will never hear Richard Thompson call for the murder of Salman Rushdie or cheer the deaths of French cartoonists. Thompson prefers to let his music do the talking. Unlike Cat Stevens’ performance here last December, I had no moral qualms about attending Thompson’s show.
Over the years, I have seen many concerts. But never I have seen the featured artist serve as his own opening act. Yet this is precisely what happened. With Canadian folk-country artist Doug Paisley unable to travel to Boston, Thompson hit the stage with his trademark black beret to perform a surprise seven-song acoustic set.
Thompson charmed the audience with his dry sense of humor, particularly in introducing “Johnny’s Far Away,” which he described as “a modern day shanty” because it took place aboard a cruise ship. He added that the song dealt with the travails of the touring musician, such as trying to get indifferent audiences to sing along and throwing up over ledge. He then urged us to join in “with the singing, not the throwing up.” But undoubtedly the highlight of the acoustic set was “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
After a short break, Thompson returned to the stage with his trio. He was joined by bass player Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome. Most of the songs the trio performed during the set were from Thompson’s 2013 album Electric and the new album Still. The highlight of the new album is “Guitar Heroes,” in which the trio plays in the style of Thompson’s guitar heroes such as Django Reinhart, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and Hank Marvin. Another standout is “Beatnik Walking,” which is reminiscent of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”.
I was disappointed that Thompson did not perform any material from his Fairport Convention days. O.K., I was also disappointed not to hear “Oops!…I Did It Again.” Yes, I cannot believe I just wrote that sentence. However, he did play several songs from the Richard & Linda Thompson days such as “For Shame of Doing Wrong” (which featured an extended jam by the trio) as well as “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” and “Wall of Death” from Shoot Out The Lights.
The only other part of the proceedings I found annoying occurred when Thompson went on a small rant against the late Margaret Thatcher. He initially confused the audience when he said, “She should have married your guy.” A few in the audience asked, “Obama?” “No, Ronald Reagan,” Thompson replied. He then spoke about how Thatcher mistreated the miners. As I remember, the British public didn’t much care for Arthur Scargill and the violent tactics of the National Union of Miners and would elect Thatcher to a third term. In any case, Lady Thatcher is also dead and gone. Why beat up on her now? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Thompson would say such a thing to a Boston audience. While waiting in line during the intermission, I overheard someone say, “This is Boston. We’re socially conscious liberals.” I knew I smelled a stench in the air.
What the anti-Thatcher rant had to do with “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” wasn’t clear. But my annoyance would eventually dissipate with Michael Jerome’s barehanded drum solo at the song’s conclusion that was reminiscent of the late Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy. It completely disappeared a few minutes later with Thompson’s stirring guitar solo on “If Love Whispers Your Name.”
For the most part, however, Thompson kept it about the music. It has been a long time since I’ve seen two encores at a concert. Tears were the theme of both encores with “Tear Stained Letter” and “Dry My Tears and Move On.” Thompson would close with a cover of Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rolling Stone.”
Richard Thompson’s guitar playing skills are second to none and is complemented by his deep Scottish baritone. One usually doesn’t say this of 66-year old performers, but Richard Thompson hasn’t reached the peak of his creative powers. This means we can look forward to plenty of great music.