An Acoustic Classic: Richard Thompson in Guildford, UK
Richard Thompson has embarked on a UK solo acoustic tour that crosses the Atlantic next month. Before his second date I had the great pleasure of talking to him about, among other things, acoustic records, songwriting, and new ideas.
Thompson has just released his second acoustic album of this year, Acoustic Rarities. But what constitutes a rarity? “It’s a title of convenience, really, for a collection of songs that weren’t finished, or didn’t fit into a particular recording or given to other people. There are a couple of Fairport Convention songs. A bit cheeky perhaps, but I thought after 50 years, why don’t I have a crack at them myself?” Is there a specific reason for all this acoustic activity? “It wasn’t planned. Acoustic Classics I and II were done for the merch desk, to give those who’d come to a show for the first time something of what I’d just played. I wasn’t expecting such popularity, so we did another.”
How do you feel now about recording songs you wrote a long time ago? “Some I’ve never stopped playing, think ‘Bright Lights.’ Songwriters are constantly revisiting their past, they do it every night. It’s not like being an artist who paints a picture then sells it to someone in, say, Santiago, then never sees it again. I still perform songs I wrote as a teenager that may appear naive or juvenile now. I’m mature now, well sort of, but take ‘Meet on The Ledge’, what was I thinking of then? I have to be able to connect that with how I feel now, the song still has to excite me otherwise I won’t do it.”
We widened this retrospective theme to the band Thompson co-founded in 1967. After 50 years what’s his relationship with Fairport Convention? “We were friends who bonded over music then we started a band. We still are friends and had a great time celebrating our 50 years this summer, but perhaps if we’d stayed together for another week we’d remember why we split. A band’s life is about ten years, after that you want to explore other ideas and projects.”
Amid all this looking backwards, he’s still got eyes ahead. “I’m busy,” he says. “I’ve just finished an album with the band for release next year. I’ve got an orchestral/ theatrical piece about the First World War and I’m going to write a book about the 1960s.”
Thompson’s songs are rich in vivid imagery: characters, people, emotions, places. “Certainly, I write about emotions,” he says. “My own, those of my friends and the state of the world. People tend to reveal their humanity in a crisis rather than their everyday lives. There’s no shortage of material. Like Dickens I tend to draw my characters a bit larger than life, it’s theater, really. A song has to be memorable. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this but I will: If a song rhymes better by bending its content a bit, then that’s fine. In the end I’m writing fiction, I’m creating a mirror to interpret reality.”
Does performing in the US differ from a tour like this of the UK? “When I began touring the US in 1982 I was treated as a new artist. I like my growing US audience but the record business there tends to pigeonhole artists more. I feel very English, so being classified as Americana, as I have, does seem completely mad. The UK audience is more of a straight line that started with Fairport.”
“Hello Guildford; I’ve always wanted to say that” was Richard Thompson’s greeting to this full house in a city better known for stockbroking than rock and rolling. “Actually I’ve been playing here since 1967.” What made the greatest impression from this acoustic set of songs that span those five decades is the pleasure they continue to give. Clearly these songs prompted many memories and associations, but stripped down to an acoustic set, they have lost none of their powers.
With no distractions we could just take in the songs and the playing that has propelled Thompson justifiably among the guitar greats.
Most of the set came from Thompson’s many solo albums. “Gesthemane” opened, followed by “Ghost of Your Walks,” both examples of Thompson’s dark lyrics based on emotions and hard times, followed by “Valerie,” with some introductory virtuoso playing. “I Misunderstood,” “Uninhabited Man,” and “Persuasion” took those themes further. Two previously unreleased songs from Acoustic Rarities, “Push and Shove” and “They Tore the Hippodrome Down” did make you wonder why they had not been released earlier.
Thompson seemed to relax a bit into the set (perhaps Guildford takes a bit of warming up) with an amusing preamble to “Beatnik Walking” about reasons to visit Amsterdam. Next it was back down the years to “Crocodile Tears.” Audience participation came with “Hots For The Smarts,” then a roaring “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Two further classics, sounding no less powerful acoustically came in the encores, “Beeswing” and “King of Bohemia.” Whether these were planned or in response to requests from the now animated audience, who knows?
Then there were the songs from the Richard and Linda Thompson records: “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight,” “Wall of Death,” and “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” were exceptional, losing none of their raw emotion, if anything digging deeper into their souls.
The third group of songs were, of course, those from Fairport Convention: “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” in memory of Sandy Denny, then from the album that pretty much launched English folk-rock Liege and Lief, “Crazy Man Michael” and the last of four encores, well, what else but “Meet on The Ledge”? Thompson mentioned “anthemic” earlier, but none merited such a title more than the song that brought together the looking back with what lies ahead. “Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge, When my time is up, I’m going to see all my friends, Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge, If you really mean it, it all comes around again.”
No matter where the song came from this was a perfectly selected collection that celebrates a monumental career. Fortunately there’s more to come.