The Return, At Last, Of Richard Thompson: Kurt Loder Reports

Revered British singer/guitarist made rare appearance Friday at Joe's Pub, with show called 'A Thousand Years of Pop Music.'

NEW YORK — Richard Thompson, the revered British guitarist and
singer, made a rare appearance on Friday night at Joe’s Pub, with a show he
called “A
Thousand Years of Pop Music.” These are some of the things he played:

  • A ballad about the Battle of Agincourt, fought in 1415. “There’s a lot of
    wonderful songs in England about beating the French,” Thompson said with a
    droll chuckle.

  • An aria from “Dido and Aeneas,” the first English opera, composed by Henry
    Purcell in the late 1680s. “This is at the end,” he said, “before the queen
    of Carthage kills herself. Nevertheless, it’s a ripping song.”

  • A tune from the 1800s that Thompson introduced as “one of the many
    ballads about dressing up as women.”

  • A song from the 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Mikado.”

  • “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” the 1935 hit by
    jazzman Fats Waller.

  • “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” the Sticks McGhee chug-a-lug classic from
    1947 (covered last year by Kid Rock).

  • Hank Williams’ 1951 country lament, “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle

Thompson also tossed off versions of “Money, Money, Money,” by ABBA, and the
Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long.” There was a Gary Glitter glam-rock anthem in
there somewhere, too.

This stellar display of musical erudition was all the more remarkable for
being performed solely by Thompson, with his capering guitar; percussionist
Michael Jerome, thumping with admirable concision on a variety of ethnic
drums; and,
providing harmonies on several songs, singer Judith Owen, who, interestingly,
happens to be the wife of comic writer and actor Harry Shearer (“This Is
Spinal Tap”). The group’s spare sound was enriched by a deft application
of microphone reverb effects.

Joe’s Pub — actually a small club next door to the late Joe Papp’s
Theatre — was an ideal environment for Thompson’s intimate instrumental
displays. Even those unfamiliar with his long and extraordinary musical
career (there were a few in attendance) were suitably appreciative.

But some longtime Thompson admirers — those who remembered his work with
late-’60s English folk-rock band Fairport Convention and (especially) the six
sublime albums he recorded, starting in 1974, with his former wife, the
incandescent singer Linda Thompson — felt a faint sense of frustration
this show.

For one thing, Richard Thompson is a very fine songwriter, the most vividly
gifted in a genre of which he seems to be the sole occupant. (It’s difficult
to isolate the intricately intertwined influences in his music.) His greatest
songs — like the epic “Night Comes In” (which reflects his spiritual
immersion in the mystical Sufi branch of Islam) and the horrifying acoustic
lullaby “The End of the Rainbow” (sample lyric, addressed to a drowsing
infant: “There’s nothing to grow up for anymore”) — are simply
unforgettable. In this show (naturally, given its concept), he played none of

More crucially, Thompson is also a masterful electric guitarist, one of the
most breathtaking players ever to strap on a Stratocaster. I don’t
exaggerate! His acoustic technique is a marvel, it’s true. But to appreciate
his true genius, you have to hear his spiraling solos and shimmering
filigrees within the context of a full band, preferably one of his romping
Anglo-roots outfits, in which bass and drums are subsumed within a whirl of
archaic instruments such as krummhorns, shawms and pennywhistles. At Joe’s
Pub, of course, there wasn’t a Strat in sight.

Over the years, I’ve often attempted to explain the riveting appeal of
Richard Thompson’s music to those who were unaware of it. This is hard to do;
the songs and their execution are so intricately ravishing. Since you won’t
be able to see him any time soon (he’s headed back to Europe, where he’s a
staple on the festival circuit), I can only recommend that you seek out his
albums. The 1969 Fairport Convention release, Liege & Lief, a monument
English folk-rock, wouldn’t be a bad place to start; and guitarists will no
doubt be both tickled and deflated by his 1981 instrumental opus, Strict
(on which, among other things, he offers up a solo rendition of
Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm”).

But the still-beating heart of Richard Thompson’s art is to be found on
the records he recorded with his wife Linda, especially their first, I
to See the Bright Lights Tonight
; and the 1975 Pour Down Like
contains the spellbinding “Night Comes In”); and — this is really The
One —
their luminous 1982 swan song, Shoot Out the Lights.

There is of course a lot of excellent music that remains unheard by large
numbers of people. But not much of it is as unjustly under-appreciated as the
revelatory work of this unique artist. Fortunately, in your own small,
record-buying way, you can do something about that.

Kurt Loder