My overview of RT
Richard Thompson at the Getty
RT live: my experience
Richard Thompson discography
Richard Thompson discography, part 2
But the rare songwriter will be mature, creative and innovative in both music and lyrics, and such a writer is Richard Thompson. Musically, he is immersed in the Anglo-Celtic folk style, but is just as immersed in American rock, though rock seen as a traditional music, not as a commercial commodity. So if you see him live, with a band, the music will be loud; at other times he will sing ballads, alone, with guitar. His music can be pounding, slow, with grim modal chords, or breakneck, scorching rock, or tender, hopeless love ballads.
As far as lyrics go, his great theme is love gone bad. ("Love letters you wrote get pushed back down your throat and leave you choking -- when the spell is broken.") Most of his songs capture moments in stories, though some songs are explicit stories. But things just about never work out right, a holdover from the Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition. Murderers, criminals, dangerous women, and men on the edge of madness populate his songs. Occasionally a song is political and is driven by Richard's corrosive wit. But then Richard is an Islamic mystic, and so an otherworldly spirituality sometimes surfaces in his work. We are constantly reminded that death is coming, a release from the miseries of this life.
Richard is sometimes known primarily as a guitarist. Though he is certainly a virtuoso, both with acoustic and electric guitar, that is the least important part of his creativity. Nevertheless, the combination of his great songwriting with his guitar artistry make his live shows probably the best live shows I've ever seen. The virtuosity is used for artistic purposes, not for cheap showoff display. Don't miss him live.
Richard started performing with Fairport Convention, and writing an occasional song, but this was apprenticeship work. As was his first solo album, the extremely odd
Henry the Human Fly (Island 1972). He then teamed up with Linda Peters, they got married, and they put out
I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, by Richard and Linda Thompson (Island), his first masterpiece. No song is less than revelatory, as one critic wrote, but his existential black lullaby, The End of the Rainbow, and the bleak drinking song, Down Where the Drunkards Roll, were high points. Linda's vocals are lovely, a perfect combination with Richard's more plain, rough voice. This was followed by
Hokey Pokey (Island 1974) (with standout ballad A Heart Needs a Home, and the irresistable grotesques, Smiffy's Glass Eye and The Egypt Room),
Pours Down Like Silver (Island 1975) (another masterpiece, with Beat the Retreat, Night Comes In, and Dimming of the Day),
First Light (Hannibal 1978) (Richard was deep in his mystic phase here), and
Sunnyvista (1979) (two great songs, Borrowed Time, Traces of My Love; the McGarrigles sing harmonies).
Strict Tempo! (Elixir 1981) is mostly instrumentals of traditional tunes by Richard.
Then in 1982, as Richard and Linda's marriage dissolved messily and publicly, they released
Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal), in which Richard took a quantum leap into harder rock. The scary, enigmatic title song became his trademark live song, performed with transcendent, discordant guitar solos. Just the Motion is an unforgettable spiritual statement sung by Linda. Wall of Death, on the other side of the spiritual coin, is a classic amusement park rock song with jangly guitars and vocal harmonies, reminding us of the wonderful ride we will get when life ends. The album was critically lauded (I believe it was selected by Rolling Stone critics as record of the year), sold more than any other album ever had on the small folk label of Hannibal, and the famous tour in which Richard and Linda performed as their marriage was falling apart somehow happened.
After the split, Linda on her own developed a throat condition that prevented her from singing much, but she nevertheless has released two superb albums, One Clear Moment (Warner Bros. 1985) and Dreams Fly Away (Hannibal 1996), a retrospective.
Richard's solo albums have been of such a consistently high quality that it's hard to pick favorites among them. His vocals without Linda are serviceable, sometimes exciting and deeply felt, but for some people, an acquired taste. In style, these albums extend the rock development of Shoot Out the Lights, gloom and doom themes, with occasional moments of pure folk balladry. In addition, once in a while there is a song that is simply goofy, like Rumour and Sigh's Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands.
The early albums were
Hand of Kindness (Hannibal 1983) (standouts here are Tear Stained Letter and the brooding, driving title cut) and
Across a Crowded Room (Polydor 1985) (with the ultimate end-of-relationship song, When the Spell Is Broken, and the searing analysis of violent jealousy, Fire in the Engine Room, a rock tour de force). With
Daring Adventures (1986 Polydor) Richard picked up producer / keyboardist Mitchell Froom, who became an important collaborator on nearly all of Richard's subsequent albums. Standout songs were the agonized, frenetic Valerie, the tender Jennie, and the biting song about homelessness, Al Bowlly's In Heaven. After
Amnesia (Capitol 1988) (ending with two great political songs, You Can't Win and Pharaoh sandwiched around the rueful ballad, Waltzing's for Dreamers) came
Rumour and Sigh (Capitol 1991), possibly Richard's solo masterpiece, with his "greatest hit" 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, a British Frankie and Johny biker tale; as well as I Misunderstood, Why Must I Plead, You Dream Too Much, and God Loves a Drunk.
Mirror Blue (Capitol 1994) and
You? Me? Us? (Capitol 1996), the latter with one rock CD and one acoustic CD, both offer the abundance of miracles that we've come to expect as a matter of course from Thompson.
Mock Tudor (Capitol 1999), is now out. More concentrated rock, less folk textures. My early favorites are Bathsheba Smiles and Hard On Me. Two great "end of relationship" songs left me feeling almost hopeful -- Dry My Tears and Move On, and Walking the Long Miles Home. The last song, The New Me, is a brilliant evocation of a sociopathic mentality. A frightening song. I will be suprised if this isn't the best album of 1999.
In addition, there is
(Guitar, Vocal) (Hannibal, 1976?), a double CD set with live cuts and alternate studio versions;
Small Town Romance (Hannibal 1984), a live album of Richard solo ; and
Watching The Dark (Rykodisc 1993), a 3-CD retrospective, with "greatest hits," alternate versions of songs, and stupendous extended live versions (including a great new "Elvis song," From Galway to Graceland).
Industry (Rykodisc/EMI 1997) is a collaboration with touring partner bassist Danny Thompson, of Pentangle fame.
There are a number of offbeat Thompson songs on the two French, Frith, Kaiser and Thompson albums,
Live, Love, Larf & Loaf (Rhino 1988) and
Invisible Means (Windham Hill 1990). Example: March of the Cosmetic Surgeons and the long rock ballad of serial murder, Killing Jar.
There are two "tribute" albums of Thompson songs sung by others:
Beat the Retreat (Capitol 1994) (performances by REM, Bonnie Raitt, X, Los Lobos, June Tabor, David Byrne, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Bob Mould, Dinosaur Jr.) and
The World Is a Wonderful Place (Green Linnet 1993), interesting covers by obscurer, folk music types, and the title cut, an unlisted song by Richard and Linda Thompson.
Recently I discovered Richard Thompson's three "official bootlegs" -- live performances professionally recorded and sold as an alternative to badly recorded, unauthorized bootleg albums. They are not available in stores, but you can order them on the internet -- see my links section below. These CDs are all magnificent. Richard live is just overwhelming. They are:
Live at Crawley 1993 (Flypaper 1995) With bassist Danny Thompson, wonderful duet performances. Dominated by Mirror Blue songs.
two letter words: live 1994, 2 cd set (Flypaper 1996). The Mirror Blue tour. RT with: Danny Thompson on bass, Dave Mattacks on drums, Pete Zorn on sax, penny whistle and rhythm guitar -- this small band of consummate musicians achieves amazing effects.
celtschmerz: live uk '98 (Flypaper 1998), RT alone, with special guests. This has two magnificent new songs.
Recently I wrote an email to a friend describing some of the details of my experience with RT live. Here are some excerpts:
Usually, if I see someone live once I lose interest, even if I like them. With Richard, I go to everything I can. I saw him acoustic at McCabes once -- spectacular. But the band shows are ecstatic.
Friend: "the band was pretty fantastic: a new, powerful drummer and a strange nerdy guy who plays all sorts of winds and mandolin and things." Me: Pete Zorn. He's played in the live shows since Mirror Blue at least. Superb musician.
At the Roxy show a couple of months ago, the time came for the band to play, and they all came from offstage to their instruments, the audience was going wild -- when RT looked around, then said, in bemused surprise, "We're one short." There was no drummer. There ensued a search for the drummer. He was nowhere to be found. "I was sure I told him the right time," said RT. So the band just stood out there joking and waiting. No drummer. So RT talked to the band and they decided to do the middle acoustic section of the concert first! They did three acoustic songs. Then the drummer finally showed up! It was very odd.
Friend: "you were right. amazing guitar on Hard On Me." Me: Live, after this song, someone called out and demanded that he play it again. He turned mock belligerent: "They don't pay us twice, do they? Why should we play it twice?"
Friend: "how many times have you seen him?"
Me: Great -- this will give me a chance to sort this out. (By the way, I live in the L.A. area.)
*St. Patricks day at the Wiltern. With band. circa Across a Crowded Room? (1985)
*Palace. circa Daring Adventures? (1986) I stood 6 feet away from Richard during this show. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. With Clive Gregson (guitar, vocals) and Christine Collister (vocals). Both superb.
*Roxy. I saw two shows the same night. They repeated a few songs on both shows, but it was more like one long show. Circa Amnesia, I think. (1988) With Clive Gregson and Christine Collister. This concert, I think, has to be the best of all of them. It went on for 4/5 hours, and I would have stayed another 4/5 hours.
*Wiltern. circa Rumour and Sigh. (1991) Shawn Colvin helped with vocals. I think Dave Mattacks was drums on all these shows, and has been on all tours except for last one.
*McCabes, RT with Danny Thompson. Pre-Mirror Blue.
*A concert hall in Wiltern area. Circa Mirror Blue (1994). RT, Danny Thompson, Mattacks, Pete Zorn.
*At a folk festival at UCLA. RT alone.
*House of Blues. circa You Me Us (1996) Danny Thompson, Mattacks, Pete Zorn. Teddy helped with a couple songs.
*At the Roxy. A month or so before release of Mock Tudor. (1999) Danny Thompson, Teddy Thompson, unknown drummer, Pete Zorn.
Danny Thompson is a great bass player. That McCabes show was magnificent. RT sounded like three guitars, and DT's virtuoso bass was very creative and supportive. Its melodic qualities stood out more than in band shows.
RT's signature song with band is Shoot Out the Lights. He has played it at every concert, I think -- until this last concert. He also usually plays Wall of Death. In recent shows he often plays Hokey Pokey and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. (A very different version from the album -- almost like a new creation.) I've heard him play Poor Ditching Boy also. I haven't heard him play Fairport Convention songs.
His last encore for the Palace show was, I think, End of the Rainbow. A powerful, powerful ending.
I love his jokey persona live -- wonderful contrast to the bleak and horrifying songs.
I wish I'd heard some Richard and Linda shows. Oh well.