Entertainment Music

Saturday 21 April 2018

Music: In the court of King Richard Thompson, folk royal

Six-string mastery: Richard Thompson comes to Dublin on Monday
Six-string mastery: Richard Thompson comes to Dublin on Monday
John Meagher

John Meagher

There is usually a significant drop-off in the quality of live music in the weeks leading up to the last major music festival of the year, Electric Picnic, but that's not the case this time around with Tuesday seeing a true great playing Dublin's Vicar Street. Richard Thompson - no stranger to these shores - is in town to showcase his 16th solo album, Still, which was released in June to the sort of glowing reviews he has long been accustomed to.

Now 66, and with almost a half-century of music behind him, Thompson really should be on most music lovers' concert bucket lists. One of the most significant English folk singers ever, he is also hailed for his marvellous guitar playing.

The Los Angeles Times once said he was "the best songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix" while Rolling Stone named him in their top 20 best guitarists of all time. And yet, he's not quite as widely known as his talent should have made him. He seems to be forever cursed with such descriptors as 'songwriter's songwriter' or 'guitarist's guitarist'.

Not that Thompson appears to mind. One imagines that his preferred milieu is the comparatively intimate environs of Vicar Street, and such like, rather than the super-sized venues that some of those who've covered his songs have long been used to.

And what an impressive roll-call that list: Elvis Costello ('Shoot Out the Lights'), Robert Plant ('House of Cards'), David Byrne (the pair collaborated for an acoustic concert in New York in 1992) and Bonnie Raitt ('Dimming the Day') have all covered his songs. One of my favourite versions is REM's take on 'Wall of Death' from 1995, which appeared on the B-side of Patti Smith-assisted 'E-Bow the Letter'. (Incidentally, one of Thompson's most important collaborators, the producer Joe Boyd, helmed the 1985 REM album, Fables of the Reconstruction.)

Richard Thompson, who was born in London, first came to prominence in 1968 as a member of Fairport Convention, the progenitors of British folk-rock music. During an astonishingly fruitful 1969, the band released three albums, including the enormously influential Liege & Lief, which embraced elements of Irish trad as well as the standard tropes of English folk.

Thompson demonstrated an intuitive mastery of the guitar that provided perfect accompaniment to then lead singer, Sandy Denny. Now hailed as one of the great singer-songwriters of the era, Denny died aged 31 in 1977 after years of substance abuse.

Thompson quit Fairport Convention in 1971 to embark on alternative projects, although a version of the band still does the rounds today. (There's surely a place for them in the record books for most number of past members.) For many, it's his collaborative albums with singer-songwriter wife Linda Peters that represent the high water point in Thompson's career.

After releasing a poorly received solo album, Henry the Human Fly, in 1972, Richard and Linda set about making one of the darkest, yet most engaging albums you could wish to hear. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight was recorded in a matter of days in 1973, but wouldn't be released until the following year, partly because their record company was working out how to promote such an outwardly depressing record.

Reviews - especially retrospective ones - recognised the album as a major statement in which two songwriters, at the peak of their powers, were laying their souls bare. With a lean run-time of 37 minutes, there's barely a note out of place. And my, what songs: 'Withered and Died' is like a companion piece to 'Fairytale of New York' thanks to its unflinching look at life through an alcoholic's viewpoint, while 'End of the Rainbow' is a bleak warning for an infant in a cradle - there's no pot of gold at the end. Such literal descriptions may not encourage those of you unfamiliar with the album to investigate further, but it says something about the pair's musical alchemy and willingness to write songs that cock a snoop to the slight subject matter that populate so much popular verse, that once heard you will want to return time and time again.

The pair made several albums together in the 1970s, but it's their final joint effort, 1982's Shoot Out the Lights, that some would argue represents the summit of their talents. Recorded in the final stages of their disintegrating marriage - a period when Linda was pregnant with daughter Kamila (now a songwriter herself) - it's one of the great meditations on love and loss. Such territory is traversed so much in song, and yet it's difficult not to be moved by the rawness of their writing and the beauty of their delivery.

"Even in the best days of our marriage, Richard and I didn't communicate with each other fabulously well," Linda said later. "I think that the reason the music was good was that we tended to save it for work."

Intriguingly, the album was originally recorded with Gerry Rafferty in the producer's chair but he and Thompson fell out over the way the album should sound: Richard came to loathe the 'Baker Street' man's slick, polished approach and the bootleg versions that exist suggests he was right to ditch the recordings. Joe Boyd, who had worked with Thompson from the Fairport Convention days, was drafted in some months later and his fast and loose style worked a treat.

A very different producer appears on Thompson's latest album, the 40th when you factor in his Fairport Convention and Linda albums. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was an inspired choice, not least on the eight-minute closing track, 'Guitar Heroes', which celebrates some of the instrument's great players - Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, Less - and also reminds us of Thompson's six-string mastery.

Those who make it to Vicar Street on Monday night are in for a treat.

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