Richard Thompson: Acoustic Rarities
Beeswing Records – 6 October 2017
In which Richard Thompson (recently interviewed here) treats us to some top songs from his bottom drawer, and rescues some more familiar material from his recycle bin…
Conceived as an album to sell at acoustic gigs, it came as something of a surprise that 2014’s Acoustic Classics – Richard’s recordings home alone with Pro Tools – scored a top-20 hit in the UK and charted elsewhere across the globe. But it shouldn’t be a shock that a world-class guitarist and songwriter showcasing some of his very best material should find a bigger market than at the merchandise stall.
So, after a couple of brilliant new studio albums, this year Richard Thompson treats us to not only another volume of Acoustic Classics (reviewed here), but also this Acoustic Rarities album too. It would be churlish to challenge what defines a ‘classic’ and a ‘rarity’ as Thompson’s quality control is so high. So, we just have to accept that a Heart Needs A Home from Hokey Pokey is a ‘classic’ but the same album’s Never Again is a ‘rarity’.
Frankly, I don’t care as both are very welcome however Thompson chooses to categories them. And there is some more familiar material in this 14-song collection. A couple of Full House Fairport-era are presented in new acoustic arrangements. Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman, a Cropredy favourite, while missing a blistering electric guitar solo, is still a chilling song. Another Thompson/Swarbrick co-credit and Cropredy classic is Sloth, which miraculously manages to clock-in at five-and-a-half minutes, less than half its usual duration. Again, it offers a fresh perspective on this sparse, brutal-but-beautiful song.
Alongside the bleak Never Again, we have two more gems from Richard’s early post-Fairport albums. I’ve read that Thompson was disappointed with his vocals on his first solo album, Henry The Human Fly. But many decades on the road have hones his vocal chords into an outstanding instrument and a perfect accompaniment to his astonishing guitar playing. So The Poor Ditching Boy is much more assured here than on the ‘72 original, with some fine accordion and mandolin.
The End Of the Rainbow needs no introduction (definitely not to Elvis Costello) and Richard performs a wiser and more world-experienced reading of this anti-lullaby. Just as in 1973 when the song was recorded, tycoons and barrow boys are still robbing us…
At the other end of the horizon is Rainbow Over The Hill – suitably separated from the other rainbow by seven tracks – this song offers a much more optimistic appraisal of that meteorological phenomenon. Written around 1972, Richard Thompson offered a demo of this song to Ashley Hutchings, and it was recorded as part of The Albion Band’s sessions for the classic 1978 album Rise Up Like The Sun. However, that Linda Thompson-vocal version only showed up as a bonus track on the CD reissue in 1992. Now, at long last, we get an official Richard Thompson cut. It’s a little more melancholic than the rousing Albion alternative. But it’s still a rare positive against-all-odds Thompson song, sentiments reminiscent of the more famous I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (which may explain why Richard Thompson never featured this in his repertoire until now).
In a bit of folky synchronicity, 40 years later Richard donated a song to Ashley’s son Blair Dunlop for his 2012 debut album Blight & Blossom. But Seven Brothers stands in startling contrast to Rainbow Over The Hill, it’s about as morose and morbid as you can get, even by Thompson’s exacting standards. It’s the story of seven ‘brothers’ waiting by a roadside, each of whom encounters a ‘stranger’ and suffers an agonising death. It’s stark and chilling, a welcome return to Thompson evoking an ancient folk idiom. That he can ‘give away’ a song of this standard is a testament to his continued brilliance – lesser singer-songwriters would put out a record of fillers just to accompany a composition of such quality.
Another relatively familiar (and again contrasting) song is Alexander Graham Bell, which he has been performing solo and with Danny Thompson for more than a decade. Richard often lightens the mood with a ’novelty’ tune or two at gigs. While definitely not a throwaway, the song is an amusing paean to the Scottish-born scientist, inventor, engineer mostly known for his patenting of the first telephone. But, as Thompson’s jaunty and witty song expounds, there is a lot more to Alexander Graham Bell than just pioneering telephonics. It’s a Wikipedia entry in rhyme, the best song that Tom Lehrer never wrote. (Next time can we have My Daddy Is a Mummy please RT? It’s a favourite of my Egyptology-obsessed offspring, although I doubt even Thompson can compete with the cuteness overload of my two-year-old singing, ‘Oh, my daddy is a Mummy, he’s inside a pyramid..’)
You would have to have seen the Richard Thompson Band in 1989 to have heard Push And Shove before. It’s a sweet little Thompson rock’n’roller, a skewed love song where agony uncle Richard advises that ‘You gotta push and shove if you wanna be loved.’ Thompson’s driving guitar work recalls early Who, and he adds a few Beatlesque ‘woos’ into the mix to add to the British Invasion vibe. It’s another stunning vocal and guitar performance and, again, surprising that it didn’t end up on an album contemporaneous to its composition. But when you realise that album would have been Rumor and Sigh, it’s more understandable – it’s not like Thompson was short of killer material for that release.
Another track that has been given a public airing is I’ll Take All My Sorrows To The Sea, but by an even more obscure path. Back in 2012, Richard was invited to perform a chamber orchestral song suite for a couple of concerts with the Idyllwild Arts Academy Orchestra. For this collaboration, Richard chose to adapt a series of ‘transcripts’ of interviews with ghosts (real or imagined) into a three-song cycle. Richard introduced Sorrows to the Sea as being about, ‘…the ghost of a young girl who haunts the ocean where her lover was drowned.’ It’s a suitably creepy and unsettling listen, the song works without the backing, but it’s a shame that the full cycle with the Idyllwild orchestra isn’t available as Richard’s vocal performance is frankly astounding.
The other four songs are bonafide obscurities, never released or recorded by others. The collection opens with What If, a typical Thompson character study of someone cruelly disregarded by another. The song comes across as an internal monologue rebuffing the person who slighted the narrator as (hilariously) a ‘fat man in a thong.’ It’s a bold and uncompromising opener to the album, with Richard showcasing some unexpected falsetto backing vocals on the chorus, alongside his trademark guitar histrionics.
Following is They Tore The Hippodrome Down, the performance of this song at Cropredy this year was rewarded with cheers and applause usually reserves for a Thompson classic. Because, frankly, even on first listening that’s what it is. The song occupies the same musical landscape as Al Bowlly’s In Heaven and Sweetheart On The Barricade – think Duke Ellington or Charlie Mingus. Sentimental but never saccharine, Thompson gives voice to an older gent who’s lost not just his wife and friends but whose whole way of life has disappeared over the decades. The fact that the central image of the title is an evocative enough metaphor on its own is a testament to Richard Thompson’s power as a craftsman of songs. Perhaps he’ll re-record it for Acoustic Classics III – it deserves a place amongst the very best of Richard’s repertoire.
As a rarities collection, you would expect a sharper contrast in genre and approach to songs than a regular release, and I’ve already highlighted how Richard Thompson has showcased his versatility here. And, once again, we are taken on another musical journey with I Must Have A March, which sounds like Thompson’s take on Brecht and Weill. It’s the missing link between Fairport Convention and the Divine Comedy. I suspect, like Neil Hannon’s band’s appearance at Cropredy this year, this is something that will divide opinion. Personally, I’m in the welcome camp, as I never expected to hear Thompson adding Sparks-like backing vocals to a cabaret-style song. And if that’s not a rarity, nothing is…
Richard has a little subcategory of waltz time songs including She Never Could Resist A Winding Road, Saving the Good Stuff For You, Miss Patsy, How Will I Ever Be Simple Again and, unsurprisingly, Waltzing’s For Dreamers. Now added to that list is She Played Right Into My Hands, which closes the album. The triple meter suitably echoes the subject of the song, the singer describing his relationship with a girl who believes she is in command, but in reality, it’s he who is dancing rings around her. It’s an admirably constructed ditty, but not only is it like an early version of Saving the Good Stuff, it also feels a little slight in comparison to some of the towering familiar and impressive lesser known songs here.
In comparison to Acoustic Classics volumes one and two, this is a more uneven collection, skipping around genres and tone from one track to the next. But for a long-term Thompson fan, it is more rewarding – offering an opportunity to see the scope of his multiple talents. As well as giving us new takes on familiar songs, we get to hear Richard Thompson’s own versions of songs performed by others, and a few minor gems are balanced out by some fantastic new (to us anyway) material.
I’m already mentally sketching out a tracklist for the third classics and hoping for a second volume of rarities (which must include Speechless Child if you’re reading this, RT!). But I suspect the ever-restless Richard, never one to look back for long has other plans…
Tracklisting for Acoustic Rarities
1.What If (unreleased)
2.They Tore The Hippodrome Down (unreleased)
3.Seven Brothers (covered by Blair Dunlop)
4.Rainbow Over The Hill (covered by the Albion Band)
5.Never Again (released in 1975 on Richard & Linda Thompson album Hokey Pokey)
6.I Must Have A March (unreleased)
7.I’ll Take All My Sorrows To The Sea (from the orchestral song suite Interviews With Ghosts)
8.Poor Ditching Boy (released in 1972 on Richard Thompson album Henry The Human Fly)
9.Alexander Graham Bell (unreleased)
10.Sloth (released in 1970 on Fairport Convention album Full House)
11.Push And Shove (unreleased)
12.End Of The Rainbow (released in 1974 on Richard & Linda Thompson album I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight)
13.Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman (released in 1970 on Fairport Convention album Full House)
14.She Played Right Into My Hands (unreleased)
RICHARD THOMPSON TOUR DATES
Plus support Josienne Clarke + Ben Walker
Wed 11 October Brighton Dome
Thu 12 October Guildford G-Live
Fri 13 October Poole Lighthouse
Sat 14 October Bristol Colston Hall
Sun 15 October Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre
Tue 17 October Edinburgh Usher Hall
Wed 18 October Gateshead Sage
Thu 19 October Salford Lowry SOLD OUT
Sat 21 October Saffron Walden Saffron Hall
Sun 22 October Coventry Warwick Arts Centre
Mon 23 October London Cadogan Hall *EXTRA DATE*
Wed 25 October Sheffield City Hall
Thu 26 October Leicester de Montfort Hall
Fri 27 October Basingstoke Anvil
Sat 28 October Norwich Theatre Royal
Mon 30 October London Bridge Theatre SOLD OUT