Richard Thompson Brings His Music Ashore |

Richard Thompson Brings His Music Ashore

“If you love to dance to the music of the 15th century,” Richard Thompson tells the audience at Annapolis’s Rams Head on Stage, “you’ll love this one.” That song, “The Old Pack Mule,” does have the skip-and-hop rhythm of the Middle Ages, even though the lyrics are newly written and the song wasn’t released until the end of May as part of Thompson’s new album, Ship to Shore. As often happens in Thompson’s songs, the lively music is juxtaposed by the grim lyrics. The mule in question has just died, and the medieval villagers are sharpening their knives and asking, “Who wants his hooves?” and “Who wants his tongue?” Or maybe it’s not the Middle Ages; maybe our own days are the “hard times and hungry times” mentioned by the narrator.

On the album, the song is given a folk-rock thump by bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, even though the folk half of the hybrid sound is 600 years old. At the Maryland show, however, Thompson’s acoustic guitar has to do the work of the missing band, while his baritone tells the story with a soprano harmony from his wife Zara Phillips. The tune doesn’t suffer from the stripped-down presentation, for Thompson has the uncanny knack of alternating rhythm and lead guitar parts so seamlessly that the quirky, ancient pulse and the modern improvisations on the melody are neatly sewn together. The 75-year-old troubadour wears a black beret, a gray, knee-length coat and a tidy gray goatee and looks quite pleased to be back on stage in front of people. Ship to Shore concludes with “We Roll,” a song about the traveling-musician life. Over the tumbling momentum of a folk-rock anthem, he sings, “500 miles today, maybe a hundred more, I don’t see a single place that I ain’t seen before, and we roll from this town to the next town.”

“When I first played the song for the band,” Thompson says in a pre-show interview in Annapolis, “and I sang that line, ‘The curtain’s coming down,’ the guys said, ‘You’re not retiring, are you?’ I said, ‘No, it’s about the end of a show when you say we’ll be back in a year or two.’ It’s like the Rams Head here; I’ve played it, it’s got to be 10 times. It’s a noble calling, but it’s not an easy life. You get tired, but you get replenished quickly and can’t wait to get back out there. The royalties from album sales and songwriting have gone from 50% of my income to 5%. That’s why all of us are still on the road. I still make albums, because I keep writing songs, and I’d like people to hear them—and I’d like people to hear me play guitar in a live context. But I have to tour to make a living.”

Thompson considers himself lucky. When he first left school at 18 to co-found the Fairport Convention and become a full-time pop musician, the template was you worked hard for a few years and disappeared by age 25. In the mid-‘60s, many great blues singers, jazz saxophonists and folk fiddlers from earlier decades were being discovered working as janitors, dishwashers and elevator operators. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to keep buying records and concert tickets not just for superstars but also for mid-level artists like Thompson and Mavis Staples, who have never had to quit the business. They reaped the benefits of a long career without breaks in continuity. “Fairport revived British folk music in 1968-69,” Thompson recalls, “just when the connection between pop music and traditional music had almost been lost. TV and radio had almost killed off the old stuff, so people were frantically searching for the last people to know these songs—the fiddlers and the ballad singers. In Ireland, the show bands had almost killed off their folk music till the Chieftains came along and rescued it.”

When he was in high school, living in Muswell down the street from Ray and Dave Davies’ childhood home, Thompson was in bands covering Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf—like most of the early British rock bands. When Fairport got started, they needed something to distinguish themselves from the competition. “We got interested in songwriters,” Thompson remembers, “and the best happened to be American and Canadian. And that made us different from every other band in London, because everyone else was psychedelic, and lyrics didn’t matter as much as long guitar solos. When Dylan was hanging around the Beatles and telling them, ‘You need to have better lyrics,’ we were very aware of that.”

Fairport consciously modeled itself on American bands like the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful, who were electrifying North American folk music. The London teenagers looked down on all-acoustic groups like Pentangle—a youthful arrogance that embarrasses Thompson now. “It was important for us to be electric,” he explains, “just like it was important to Dylan. You can reach more people with an electric guitar.” These days Thompson enjoys dual careers: playing acoustic guitars on solo shows like the one in Annapolis and playing electric guitar on band tours as he will in England around the album release date.

As appealing as the Fairport versions of songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were, the band didn’t find its true identity till it turned its attention from America’s folk music to Britain’s on its fourth album, 1969’s Liege & Lief. It was here that Thompson discovered the importance of geography in music. “You always fear that it will become one humongous global thing,” Thompson says today, “but just when it seems bleakest, new sounds are breaking out of Cuba, India, even the U.S. Those regional differences are crucial, and so are the people who want to keep it that way—like in Louisiana where you have those brass bands, zydeco, Cajun and traditional jazz. “Pop can sound bland if it doesn’t come from a recognizable place. Irish pop can sound like it comes from anywhere, but if it has that Irish thing, that places it and gives it some character,” he continues. “In Scotland, you’ve got a band called Texas. Why not a band called Glasgow?”

Liege & Lief did not try to reverently recreate the ancient songs collected by 19th century folklorists such as Francis James Child and Cecil Sharp. Instead, Fairport Convention (featuring such future legends as Thompson, vocalist Sandy Denny, bassist Ashley Hutchings, fiddler Dave Swarbrick, guitarist Simon Nicol and drummer Dave Mattacks) remade the songs with electric guitars and a rock’n’roll rhythm section. It was a happier marriage than might have been expected. “The American and British folk traditions overlap,” Thompson says. “Appalachian music is basically Irish-Scottish. And a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm is similar to a Scottish reel, and a 6/8 blues is similar to a Scottish jig.” Thompson left Fairport after one additional album, 1970’s Full House. It was an amicable parting, and both parties continued to explore the possibilities of British folk-rock. The guitarist continued to play on his ex-bandmates’ records and at the occasional festival. Out on his own, Thompson was emerging not only as a hot-shot session guitarist who played on records by John Martyn, Al Stewart and Nick Drake but also as one of London’s top songwriters.

Like his role model Bob Dylan—who was frequently and compellingly covered by Fairport Convention—Thompson discovered that old folk songs offer a sturdy architecture that one can fill with one’s own stories. His early compositions such as “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Meet on the Ledge,” “Poor Ditching Boy,” “The Calvary Cross” and “Withered and Died” became folk songs themselves, covered by many and familiar to many more. All of this is disarmingly told in Thompson’s 2021 autobiography, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975, one of the better-written music memoirs. Though the songwriter co-wrote it with music critic Scott Timberg, the same sardonic, frank voice that one encounters in Thompson’s interviews and stage banter comes through on the page.

In Annapolis, Thompson began his encore with a spellbinding version of “The Dimming of the Day,” a traditional-sounding ballad of unapologetic romantic longing from the 1975 Richard & Linda Thompson album, Pour Down like Silver. “What days have come to keep us far apart,” he sang in his deep-as-a-well baritone, “a broken promise or a broken heart? Now all the bonny birds have wheeled away. I need you at the dimming of the day.” The lustrous melody is loosely adapted from the traditional Irish song “The Dawning of the Day” (also reworked by Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh as “Raglan Road” to equally splendid effect). Thompson’s lyrics are a heart-wrenching portrait of a marriage in trouble but far from doomed. No wonder the ballad has been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, David Gilmour, Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.

As he matured as a songwriter, Thompson embraced the Randy (“Short People”) Newman technique of having some songs narrated by an unlikable, unreliable narrator. He opened the Annapolis show with one such song, “I Feel So Good,” from his 1991 album, Rumor and Sigh. It’s a propulsive uptempo rocker embellished by a chiming Celtic guitar figure. But the music’s contagious enthusiasm is only a means of implicating the listener in the narrator’s pathological boast, “I feel so good I want to break somebody’s heart tonight.” Are we meant to be caught up in this recently released prisoner’s desire or to be appalled by it? Perhaps both. “I don’t write about myself,” Thompson declares. “When I write in the first person, I’m playing a character. You can have more of an effect that way. Instead of shouting ‘Stop the war’ or ‘Impeach him,’ you can sing as if you’re the person you don’t like and expose his contradictions. It’s a weapon in my arsenal as a songwriter.”

There’s a similar song on Ship to Shore, “Life’s a Bloody Show”—though it’s sung in the second person, not the first. It’s a scathing portrait of that pop-music fixture: the star whose original inspiration has shriveled up but who sustains his or her momentum on sheer arrogance and narcissism. “Don’t let on your soul had died, a hole has opened up inside,” Thompson snarls over a woozy guitar figure, “that all you love is just yourself and how you sneer at the peasants down below.” The narrator of “Trust” on the new album is a different persona, the naïve sad sack who’s sideswiped by the ways of the world. “No one told me love’s so complicated,” Thompson laments wearily over a jittery guitar part, “dreams get so frustrated, romance is overrated.” The deliberate pace of the vocal contrasts against the nervous energy of the music underneath, as if the slow-witted narrator is being ambushed by quick-witted predators around him. “I like juxtaposing slow singing against double-time playing,” Thompson says. “A lot of Pakistani music does that. It suggests both energy and elegance. Years ago, when I was working with Sandy Denny, we always had a problem with her songs, fabulous as they were, because they were all slow. It was hard to get her out of that pacing. Years later, I realized the band could play fast, and the vocalist could sing slow.”

Thompson and his wife Zara split their time between his hometown of London and her hometown of Montclair, New Jersey. “I like to be in the States,” he says, “because there are more places to work here. But I still think of London as home. If I ever retire—and I don’t think I ever will—I’ll retire to London. I’ve always felt British, and I still do.” Far from retiring, he’s as productive as ever. He’s written and recorded two six-track EPs of new songs, he reveals, that he’ll be releasing in the near future. And he’s written but not recorded the next album. It’s not as if he’s slowing down. “I used to write every day,” he demurs, “but now I write in batches. Most days I get up at 7 am and pick up something I’m already working on. If I do that, the songs have a continuity, a cohesiveness that they wouldn’t have if I were jumping around from idea to idea. When I’m walking down the street, I might think of a bit of melody or a line or two of lyric or an idea on how to finish something.”

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