Sunday, January 18, 2009


Richard Thompson is an enigma to me. He's one of those artists (Neil Young is another) with three decades of influential music-making under his belt; revered by musicians, fans and critics alike; and I cannot even name three songs of his I have listened to all the way through. I feel as though I should like him but knowing where to start is a problem. For me, he is wrapped in an impenetrable cloak of mystery which only those with an intimate knowledge of his extensive back-catalogue are allowed to shelter under. A bit like jazz really.

Reading about his '1000 Years of Popular Music' tour made me think this could be the way to see RT without taking on the back catalogue challenge. And then what do you know? Two hours before this nearly sold-out gig is about to start I get gifted a ticket.

Richard Thompson first performed 1000 Years of Popular Music at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and has since done multiple-night stands in Chicago, New York, London, and numerous other major U.S. cities. The set list varies from night to night, but has been known to start in the 13th century and move to medieval Italian ballads to selections from the songbooks of Gilbert & Sullivan, Stephen Foster, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, The Beatles, The Who, Squeeze, and Prince, all strung together by Richard's vocals, incomparable guitar playing and dry wit. For this tour, Richard is accompanied by vocalist/pianist Judith Owen and percussionist/ vocalist Debra Dobkin.

So the first half of the concert had Italian renaissance music, a madrigal, 19th century mining ballad, an operatic aria from Henry Purcell, a 17th century sea shanty, music hall, even Gilbert and Sullivan. Second half: Cole Porter, honky tonk country, early rock 'n' roll and into the sixties with The Kinks and The Easybeats, and then on to Abba, The Korgis and Nelly Furtado. It was a leisurely, chronological journey with anecdotes and back story to each song - but the arrangements and musicanship were excellent and projections on a large backdrop (renaissance art, American merchant navy ships, couples jiving) illustrated each era and each song.

As the set got more contemporary, it all became a bit 'so what'. The covers didn't add much to the songs from recent decades (unlike his Britney cover - see below) and it all lacked the variety, inventiveness and joy of first half. Still it was one of the most enjoyable and surprising evenings of music I have been to for a long while; and great to feel as though I was in the younger half of the audience for once.

Live versions of 'Blackleg Miner', 'Shenandoah' and 'Oops I Did It Again' can be streamed here courtesy of NPR and the tour continues. '1000 Years of Popular Music' is available as a DVD and 2 CD set here.

No Prince or Britney tonight but he did play versions of these:

Malcolm Yelvington
The Sound of Sun [BUY]

The Kinks
Ultimate Collection [BUY]

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