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

Tempo! (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

Silver (which

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