Hanging With Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson is messing with the standard performer/audience equation in two ways this year. There was his participation in the Cayamo Songwriters’ cruise in February, and his acting as an instructor at the first “Frets and Refrains” guitar camp, taking place in July in a bucolic Catskill Mountain setting.
While Thompson has received steady accolades for ages, he is still the best guitarist that you have never heard of. This allows him to participate in these ventures, since the participants are more earnest admirers than dangerous wack jobs. While his fans will talk incessantly about his special talents, he is still faced with the same dilemma as all the musicians of his generation: How to keep the audiences engaged and interested. Fans who meet him say he is a bit reserved but unerringly polite, he may not invite you to sit at his table but he is generous enough with his time to answer your questions and acknowledge your compliments.
Frets and Refrains takes place from July 16 to July 20 at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, NY, and isn’t a cheap ticket. Combined lodging packages are available from other local hotels, but the only on-site rooms now available are upwards of $2,100, unless you are willing to pay $1,000 for a campsite. Thompson will teach a acoustic guitar master class every morning. About 30 slots are left at this writing.
Many amateur guitarists will jump at the chance to jam with Richard but I’ll be sitting this one out. I’m a dedicated fan but don’t play very well, and even if I did I’d find the format a bit intimidating. Thompson says he’ll be welcoming of all skill levels, but I’d rather get my RT fix at Cayamo, where nothing is expected of me aside from getting to the show on time.
Also on the Thompson front, he will release a special 45 rpm single in honor of Record Store Day on April 21, containing new versions of “Haul Me Up” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” along with a download code for a recent take of “Night Comes In.”
For more information about Frets and Refrains go here, To get the special single, go to your local record store.
How did it happen, that you are teaching at a guitar camp?
I was approached, they run a series of camps that have Todd Rundgren and Dweezil Zappa, and some other people. They asked me to be part of the series, I thought it would be an interesting challenge so I said yes.
What’s the curriculum?
My son Teddy will be teaching. Martin Simpson will be teaching fingerpicking styles, and there will be a couple of other people I can’t mention yet. There will be various approaches, the class I am teaching will have its own angle on guitar playing and songwriting.
My main ambition with the camp is to get people to think in a different way about the guitar, to think out of the box and change their perceptions about guitar playing.
Who’s coming so far?
There are a lot of different people in the 40-50-60 age group although there are some younger people as well. There are some people who are experts, which is kind of scary. I’ll have to take a few lessons from them. I think the target is singer-songwriters who accompany themselves on the guitar, people who want to open up their brains a bit.
What if someone comes and asks you to teach them “Beeswing,” or another one of your songs specifically?
I would give them the tools to play that song or play something like it. There are some people who will come because they like the music I play, or they like my guitar playing or my songwriting. That’s understandable. I’d be happy to develop those people as much as we can, but we are hoping for 100, 110 people. There will be no time for a one on one, I won’t be able to spend an hour a day with each person at the camp. But I can give them the tools that will set them on the road to play things like “Beeswing.”
But a well-to-do person who is a pretty poor guitarist might decide that it was worth the money to hang out with you for a week.
I think that’s just fine, When you go to a camp like this there is a kind of immersion aspect to it, you are rooming with guitarists, you are eating with guitarists so there is a lot that is being passed around and filtered down. If you are a beginner the people that are on a higher level and will pass it down to you. There will be a bit of musical osmosis happening, being there will be an extraordinary experience. It will be a 24-hour musical immersion.
What do you expect to learn?
I expect to learn about my own playing and my style of music. Because I am self taught I play in an unorthodox way. I don’t do a lot of self-examination so it will be interesting for me to be more reflective about what I am doing. You always learn from other musicians, there are always musicians who have skill sets that you don’t have, I’ll be picking up a few tips from the students, some of whom may be more advanced than I am.
That would be hard to fathom.
Not really. There could be someone who has a great skill in bluegrass or flat picking, things that I am not very good at that I can learn.
The camp is only for acoustic guitarists?
It will be an acoustic guitar camp, In the future we may do an electric guitar camp, but this is just for acoustic guitar.
You have a duality of skill with both acoustic and electric. What are the differences in your approach?
They are different instruments although there are overlapping skills you can take from one to the other, both with the left hand and the right hand. Most electric guitar is played with lighter strings and there is a lot more string bending and solo playing.
WIth the acoustic guitar you end up being more orchestral, you are trying to make the guitar sound as big as you can. There are more open strings and drones, you want to make more noise. If you are playing a solo you are trying to self-accompany that solo at the same time.
When you are wrapped up in a particularly inspiring solo onstage what is going through your head?
When you are really into it you are in a different state, there is almost nothing passing through your head, It’s a little like an out of body experience, people sometimes describe it as the music playing itself. I think you go into a trance state. Another cliche is that the music plays you. I thin these are all reasonable descriptions of something that’s not really describable.
How did you get involved with Record Store Day?
I was asked to participate, it really wasn’t my idea. If I were on my own I wouldn’t know how to approach it. I was happy to be involved but I didn’t have any songs chosen and we didn’t have time to go into the studio and record anything. We had a ten day turnaround from having the idea to having to have something pressed. We were looking for content and were lucky to find some live tracks that were available.
These were takes of songs that were already available. Why do people like hearing different versions?
I wish I knew the answer to that, but I’m glad they do. When you play live it’s different every night, it’s boring to always do the same thing. You play in a larger room, there is a different vibe, and that’s why a different version might be better than the original. You go back several eras, where Louis Armstrong did many versions of the same song over a 20 year period, all recorded in the studio. And people do like to collect different versions, if you are a Grateful Dead fan you want to have every solo that Jerry Garcia recorded. Ever.
There are about 30 versions of Jimi Hendrix’ “Red House.”
Only 30? There is an unevenness to output, even in the case of Hendrix. There could be a version of “Red House” that isn’t quite as scintillating as the others. With myself, on some nights I try very hard but nothing is going to happen. On the other hand there could be a live version that far outstrips the studio version. A collector is looking for different performances.
With your participation in the guitar camp and Cayamo are you trying to connect with your audience in a different way?
The audiences are changing. The record business is changing. Artists are looking for different things to do. As the record market has shrunk artists are looking for alternate ways to reach their audience, and the audience isn’t as predictable as it used to be. They don’t just buy records and go to concerts, they are looking for different experiences.
There is a huge boom in musical cruises, which reflects a big lifestyle shift. With the music camp it provides a different way to hang out with the artists that you admire and hear the music that you like.
Will you do Cayamo next year?
I’ve been asked and I think I will say yes. It really is quite fun. The audience loved it, and the fact that it sells out in hours is a testament to how much people enjoy that particular cruise.
For some people one concert a month is enough, for others going to three, for or five concerts a day is just fine, They are very happy to spend a week listening to all kinds of music.