Thursday, September 6, 2007
After almost 40 years on the road playing some of the most trenchant, emotionally scorching folk rock ever produced, singer, songwriter and guitar maestro Richard Thompson has little to show for it but a passionate cult following.
Then again, when your devotees include the likes of David Byrne, R.E.M., Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Parker, Shawn Colvin, Loudon Wainwright III, and Cajun fiddle master Michael Doucet—all of whom contributed to the stirring 1994 Thompson tribute album Beat the Retreat—well, you’re probably doing something right. Thompson brings his lithe, versatile quartet featuring multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome to the Sunset Center on Thursday.
Since emerging from the British folk scene as a teenager in the late ’60s with Celtic folk band Fairport Convention, Thompson has developed into one of contemporary music’s most incisive songwriters. His concerts are no-holds-barred experiences as he alternates between clamorous rave ups and bittersweet tales of love gone wrong. With expert guitar work and his gruff, world-weary vocals, Thompson has carved out a niche as a musician’s musician, a player whose far-reaching influence can’t be measured by record sales.
“I started off in a very idealistic, intellectual band, and our expectation was that we’d always be doing stuff that was too far off the mainstream ever to be successful, even in the late ’60s when almost anything went,” Thompson says. “I’ve always felt comfortable being more on the edge of popular music. In terms of style and lyrical content, the audience has to take a step in my direction.”
A master songwriter who specializes in clear-eyed postmortems of love affairs and relationships in descent, Thompson has chosen a topic that provides a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration. As Greil Marcus wrote in the liner notes to the essential three-CD Thompson anthology Watching The Dark, Thompson, like Neil Young and Van Morrison, arrived on the music scene fully formed, his sensibility perfectly captured by the first lines to his 1968 Fairport Convention tune “Tale In Hard Time”: “Take the sun from my heart/ Let me learn to despise.”
With the release of Sweet Warrior, his first electric album in five years, Thompson delivers a trenchant masterpiece that’s as topical as it is timeless. From his bitterly sympathetic examination of a soldier’s plight fighting in Iraq, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” to his caustic account of post-marital relations, “Mr. Stupid,” Thompson describes a world in which we’re confronted with battles on every side, within ourselves and our relationships, on the home front as well as abroad.
“I think that they’re linked, in the sense that the outer and the inner, and the personal and the political are linked. Domestic politics is a mini version of national politics. I do see a lot of connections everywhere,” Thompson says from his home in West Los Angeles, where he stays when he’s not in London.
It was the impending break up of his marriage with collaborator and wife Linda Thompson in 1982 that produced what many consider to be one of the greatest albums of the decade, the searing Shoot Out the Lights on Hannibal Records. He and Linda had married in 1972, the same year that he left Fairport Convention and recorded his first solo album. The couple embraced Islam and recorded a series of brilliant albums together, though their involvement with the mystical Sufi tradition led to a number of retreats from the music world in the mid-70s.
The release of Shoot Out the Lights, with its gospel fervor and raw ache, marked the end of their marriage and musical partnership. The tour after the album’s release gained legendary status, as the couple seemed to seek solace and release in the autobiographical tunes “It’s Just the Motion,” “Walking on a Wire” and “Back Street Slide.”
Linda’s luminous voice had always provided relief from the full impact of his darkest lyrics. With her departure, Thompson reinvented himself, expanding the expressiveness of his relatively limited voice on albums such as Across A Crowded Room, Amnesia and Rumor and Sigh.
By the mid-’90s it had become a cliche to laud Thompson as the most compelling guitarist and literate songwriter who was never quite discovered. Successive tribute albums, including His Master’s Choice by Dave Burland in 1992 and the ironically titled 1993 CD The World Is a Wonderful Place, with tracks by Victoria Williams, Tom Robinson and others, highlighted Thompson’s gift for crafting songs that cut to the quick. As often as his tunes have been covered, he’s still uneasy when he hears someone else singing his material.
“It’s a process that makes me nervous, because you get to think of a song in a certain way and it can come back to you full of surprises,” Thompson says. “In a sense they’re like the children that you send off to boarding school and they come back smoking and drinking. You’re not quite sure how they’re going to come out.”
With Thompson singing his own music, there’s no doubt the songs will come out like lightning flashing across a storm-darkened sky.
The Richard Thompson Group performs at 8pm on Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Sunset Center, between Eighth and Ninth in Carmel. $44-$64. 620-2048 or sunsetcenter.org.