Friday, December 14, 2007

1000 Years

I’m going to veer wildly from my usual subject matter—me—and write about musician Richard Thompson.

Born in West London, the son of a Scotland Yard detective, Richard Thompson started his recording career as a member of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1967. The band’s take on Celtic music provided a graceful accompaniment to the burgeoning psychedelic scene, using traditional acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies to balance out heavier American counterparts like Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds. Thompson played guitar in a style influenced by Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and Buddy Holly as well as older forms of English folk music. He is mainly noted for his guitar playing virtuosity, but his rich voice, which one critic claims just gets better with age, is also a strong feature of this subtle musical craftsman.

Thompson left Fairport in 1971, partly due to the band’s slow progression toward original material. His solo career showed uneven success, but he remained critically acclaimed for much of this 35 year span. The early and mid-seventies saw Thompson recording with his wife, singer Linda Peters (later to be Linda Thompson) with whom he converted to Islam in 1974. He still remains a committed Muslim. The Thompson’s marriage lasted until 1980 when, at the height of their first measurable critical success for their release Shoot out the Lights, they went their separate ways under less than amicable circumstances. At one point during this period Linda reportedly kicked Richard in the shin during a guitar solo.

After the couple split, Thompson continued a journeyman career in and around the recording industry. He managed to negotiate a deal with Capitol Records which allowed him to release a consistent flow of material into the early ‘90s. In 1991 he received a Grammy nomination for Rumor and Sigh, which included the masterpiece modern-folk single "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Thompson left Capitol in 2001 and has since been exploring different venues of style with independent labels.

I just acquired Thompson’s 2006 DVD release 1000 Years of Popular Music. Thompson has recently been touring this DVD/CD and is stopping by my stomping ground on Jan. 18th. The concept of the show came from a Playboy interview which asked artists to name the ten most important songs of the last millennium. Thompson, a student of musical origins and genre took this to heart and formed a collection of songs beginning in the 13th century and ending, well, relatively speaking, right now.

The breadth of the song list is remarkable. There are traditional songs from the Elizabethan era, an Italian madrigal, a piece from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, a Smokey Joe’s reminiscent "Java Jive", Cole Porter’s "Night and Day", and a soul-melting version of one of my favorites, "Shenandoah."

The range of these selections is ambitious, but viewing the DVD from start to finish in one session is—and it is hard not have this sound trite—like making a musical journey through time. To conceive that you have just watched the same performer play Vecchi’s "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo" an hour before playing Bowling for Soup’s “1985” is to take part in more than just a great live performance. There is some instruction going on here as well.

Thompson demonstrates the occasional universal thread that connects the music of the past to today. As he introduces a modern pop-song he identifies the chord-structure as one that resembles those of the distant past. During the song he skillfully places a waltzing, finger-picked classical form of the chord-sequence in the middle of a typically “whatever” attitudinal assertion of adolescence. The song is Brittany Spear’s “Oops I did it Again.”

Thompson’s version of “Oops I did it Again” shows what a song (any song) can be in the hands of a talented musician. I’ve had it my head for about three days now, but not in an annoying way—or at least not yet. To hear this pop-confection performed with a voice that could come straight out of the Scottish peat-bogs transforms its meaning, even though it is a song about a teasing teenager suffering a brief moment of guilt for toying around with someone’s heart. There is beauty in the notion that an aging male folk singer is conveying this pre-adult sentiment.

I’ve watched this DVD about three times since purchasing it on Saturday, and I know I’ll be watching it tonight. I can hook my stereo up to my TV, and the music is so good that household chores seem to take care of themselves as I leave the DVD running and get on with the endless War of the Dog Hairs. The video is that much more pleasing because of the presence of Judith Owen who is a singer of seemingly limitless range and very easy on the eyes. The overall impression that Thompson and his three piece band are having a ball with this material sets the overall tone of a modern bacchanalian romp.

So I’m looking forward to the concert in January (I better start looking for tickets). My mind has been distracted of late, but some of the life-long joys are coming back at a time when I have more time to focus on them. These distractions are welcome, and I hope more are forthcoming as I depressurize and start, temporarily, resting on a laurel or two. See, I knew I couldn’t go a whole post without writing about myself.

Here is Thompson doing 1952 Vincent Black Lightening


hobgoblin said...

Thompson is awesome. You should check out Werner Herzog's film, "Grizzly Man." Thompson did the music for it, and the extras on the DVD show him collaborating with Herzog in the studio. He can take an idea and spontaneously create music that perfectly expresses that idea. He's a scary-good guitar player.

IM said...

Hobgoblin, I have always wanted to see that film. Now that I know that Thompson was part of the project I will actively seek it out. I'm having a rebirth of my appreciation of Thompson, most of my experience comes from listening to Fairport Convention, but his solo work is what I'm going to delve into now.

Anonymous said...

1952 Vincent Black Lightning was the song I was trying to remember that I first heard on ETown. What a great musician--but I say (not very originally) that it takes one to know one.--linser

IM said...

Hey. Congratulations on the DAVE MATHEWS GRANT! If you meet him slip him a demo of me.

Emily Barton said...

Sounds like I'll have to check out this DVD.