When I sat down to write this a part of me thought that there probably wouldn’t be many of you regular readers or even casual users or first timers at Folk Radio UK who would need me to explain the new Richard Thompson record. It’s simply if seemingly rather brazenly entitled Acoustic Classics and to use the dread advertising cliché, “It does exactly what it says on the tin!” So that being the case there is nothing brazen about the ‘chin-out’ statement of the title. But that said, what marks this selection of 14 songs as, “Classics”? That is where things get a little more complex and of course a little more interesting.
Of course one of the most obvious answers is that if you were to round up a group of Thompson fans and admirers and asked them to pick a selection of favourites from his considerable song canon, then most likely some, if not all of these would feature in all the lists, although not everyone is an immediately obvious choice, which adds intrigue for even the most devoted follower. Still it’s been put together as an accurate reflection of his acoustic one man shows and that perhaps accounts for the most obvious reason for this collection.
Thompson after all is equally capable and enthralling whether touring with a full band and his custom built electric guitar as his main instrument or on his tod, as here. In electric mode his solos are dazzling, melodically complex and so far removed from stock, blues pentatonics that it seems no fret position is left untouched over the course of an evening’s performance. He can naturally call on supremely skilled musicians to aid his efforts. In acoustic mode, he is no less skilled a player, but without all of the additional musical embellishment, then the songs are well and truly in the spotlight and in that respect as with this CD, Richard also has a winning hand.
It’s probably obvious to say that no one else could have written the songs collected here, or delivered them in the same way. Whilst affairs of the heart are common currency for most songsmiths, Richard seems to hit the little details, often with a strong narrative thread that makes them all sound so real. Despite having lived in California for years his delivery is still determinedly English. The effect is that the songs take on the character of the traditional ballads and broadsides that he played such an important role in bringing into popular culture.
Yet, at the same time Richard’s songs don’t sound old or historic, even when some of the detail paints a particular time and place. The sentiments contained within defy time’s linear passage. 1952 Vincent Black Lightening, even has a date in its title, while Wall Of Death, superficially about fairgrounds and From Galway To Graceland about an Elvis obsession have stories that speak of bygone era, yet as allegory are as relevant today as ever.
Of course whether you are with me so far may well depend on several factors, not least of which being whether you call yourself a fan. So a quick resume of why you might be and even why you should be is perhaps worth considering.
I mentioned the big hand in putting folksong under the spotlight of popular culture. Leige & Lief was incredibly the third album that Fairport Convention released in 1969. It was also the first they made that was mostly comprised of songs plucked from the tradition. The others released that year had more band compositions and contemporary covers, much in keeping with their largely ignored debut from 1968, which at least had seen the first Thompson songwriting credits.
It was Thompson’s guitar playing rather than any collective musical style that had brought Joe Boyd to the table and Fairport to Witchseason, his production company and thus to Island Records. Yet once assembled with Sandy Denny in the female lead role, this was the team that would become the larger part of the nascent folk rock scene for the next decade and more. Lieg & Lief was eventually (2006) voted by the public as the most influential folk album of all time at the BBC Folk Awards. At the time of its release, however, it attracted support from John Peel and arguably established folk-rock as a distinct entity, although sales were relatively modest.
Within a couple of years, however, Thompson had grown restless and quit Fairport, releasing his first solo album Henry The Human Fly. Whilst it was poorly received and sold poorly, it did bring Linda Peters into Richard’s orbit and the two were soon married as well as forging a working identity as Richard & Linda Thompson. They hit the ground running and in 74 and 75 released I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Hokey Pokey. Both were critically acclaimed and helped establish them as a solid if not spectacular success and live draw.
Although it wasn’t widely known at the time, however, they had both converted to the Sufi branch of Islam, which for Richard still holds true to this day. They even withdrew from the music business altogether for a while, although made a further four albums, all of which were well received if unsuccessful, before their personal and working relationship collapsed.
In 1983 he launched his solo career properly with Hand Of Kindness, a fairly straight ahead and up-tempo set of songs that attempted to banish the blues of the spiralling breakdown that had proceeded it. The album however continued the run of being well regarded but only a moderate commercial success. Thankfully, his sequence of releases through the 90s saw an upturn in Richard’s fortunes and Rumour And Sigh, Mirror Blue, You? Me? Us? and Mock Tudor all sold well enough to hit the UK album chart.
The 14 studio albums he’s released since 83 have been supplemented with a steady run of live and fan club releases. In some ways this falls into that category, but it also adds a nice counterpoint to the recent run of releases from Sweet Warrior, through Dream Attic to the equally sharply named Electric that have created a commercial peak, with the latter two netting Top 20 album chart placings. This career high has coincided with him curating the prestigious Meltdown and being awarded an MBE.
Interestingly the song selection here pulls 6 from the Richard & Linda Thompson catalogue, which all stand the test of time so well. Wall Of Death and Walking On A Wire both come from their career ending Shoot Out The Lights, and are titles that seem laden with portent. Dimming Of The Day comes from Pour Down Like Silver, the first record to display any visible signs of their religious conversion. It also follows an ancient Sufi tradition of expressing divine love in earthly terms. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Down Where The Drunkards Roll are altogether more earthy in outlook.
1952 Vincent Black Lightening is an obvious choice from Rumour And Sigh and I Misunderstood comes from the same record. It’s great to have a version of Beeswing, inspired by Anne Briggs, also from that flush of success in the 90s. From the 80s come Valerie and When The Spell Is Broken, whilst there are also two that haven’t appeared on proper studio sets, although have appeared on compilations. There’s Persuasion, a co-write with Tim Finn and the excellent From Galway To Graceland, a sad tale of obsession.
It’s perhaps only fair that the most recent inclusion is One Door Opens from 2003’s The Old Kit Bag. I suspect that the more recent material has been thoroughly toured over the last few years and so might have to wait for some future reworking, with the benefit of a little more distance. Besides, the recent trio of releases will have sated those who favour his electric output, myself included and there have been some stunning band shows over the past few years.
Finally it has to be said that the recording is as simple as you like, but Richard’s acoustic guitar playing is every bit a match for the complexity of his electric fretwork. The songs really do speak for themselves with nearly all sounding like one man, one guitar and one voice. That voice is strong and able to bring these varied characters, stories and fables to life and in doing so achieves the aim of representing his one man show. Classic Richard Thompson thus thoroughly deserves its tag of Acoustic Classics in the widest possible sense.
Review by: Simon Holland
UK & European Tour Dates
20 – Folk By The Oak Festival (Solo Acoustic), Hatfield
22 – The Hawth (Solo Acoustic) with The Rails, Crawley
23 – The Forum (Solo Acoustic) with The Rails, Bath
24 – Warwick Folk Festival (Solo Acoustic), Warwick
25 – Womad Festival, Malmesbury
27 – Underneath The Stars Festival (Solo Acoustic), Barnsley
30 – Gawsworth Hall (Solo Acoustic) with The Rails, Macclesfield
01 – Cambridge Folk Festival (Solo Acoustic), Cambridge
02 – Dranouter Festival (Solo Acoustic) Dranouter, Belgium
03 – Stockholm Music & Arts Fest (Solo Acoustic), Stockholm, Sweden
05 – Amagner Bio, Copenhagen, Denmark
07 – The Farm (Solo Acoustic), Zoetermeer, Netherlands
22 – Towersey Festival (Solo Acoustic), Oxfordshire
24 – Buxton Opera House (Solo Acoustic) Buxton,
25 – The Queens Hall (Solo Acoustic), Edinburgh
26 – Music Hall (Solo Acoustic) Aberdeen,
28 – Grand Opera House (Solo Acoustic) with The Rails, York
30 – Moseley Folk Festival (Solo Acoustic), Birmingham
31 – End of The Road Festival (Solo Acoustic), Salisbury
Released 21st July 2014 via Beeswing Records
Pre-order via ProperMusic (Free delivery & returns within the UK)