Thompson Sheds Some Gloom


New songs, label freedom find Richard Thompson almost happy
Posted Mar 15, 2001 at 12:00am
Richard Thompson, whose somber repertoire gives him the reputation as the king of gloom, is showing another side during his current solo tour. Granted, his shows are never quite as grim as some of his songs could allow, and he has always worn a mask of self-effacement that counters some of the more serious themes. However, as fans called out for tunes from all corners of his career on the first date of his fifteen-city club tour in Seattle's King Cat Theater on March 12th, Thompson snapped back with "you are asking for all of the depressing ones." Furthermore, some of his on-stage patter -- along with a pair of frivolous new songs -- came dangerously close to stand-up comedy.

Thompson's current tour comes during what must be a liberating time for the fifty-one-year-old guitarist. As Capitol prepares to release Action Packed, a "best of" collection covering the last twelve years, the now label-less Thompson is stretching his wings. Crisscrossing the country with suitcase and guitar in hand (and a solitary roadie in tow) he is offering a grab-bag of selections from his entire career on a decidedly low-buck operation.

In many cases, the "Unplugged" syndrome has been about repackaging or restatement. But when Thompson goes solo he shows how unnecessary the band really is. As with many of his electric shows, he opened with "When the Spell is Broken," coloring the song's sound with his facile fingerpicking technique.

Thompson's two new songs were lighthearted, topical and satirical, breaking his mold in a number of ways and yet another example of the freedom offered by a label-less existence. His lyrics are usually opaque, but there was nothing subtle about the bitterly funny "I Agree With Pat Metheny." The song refered to Metheny's written criticism of Kenny G for overdubbing himself onto a recording of Louis Armstrong, though Thompson's song, while scathing, had none of the righteousness of Metheny's original criticism. Instead he went for the funny-bone, likening the Kenny G/Armstrong "collaboration" to a meeting between Albert Einstein and Sporty Spice, and including the phrase "brainless pentatonic riffs" rhymed with "Kenny's negligible gifts."

He followed "Metheny" with "My Daddy Is a Mummy," a kids' song masquerading as a history lesson. Here, he added some vaguely Islamic riffs to a hard rock backbeat. "If this sounds familiar, remember there are two Memphises," he warned. Thompson recounted playing the song to a group of literal-minded nine-year-olds who took issue with one of the lyrics, and flagged him with a "But Mr. Thompson, it's impossible to send a postcard back through time." Like an experienced comic, he kept returning to themes that got laughs moments before. In this case, he returned and re-returned to ridicule Kenny G, lapsing into some mocking, feeble jazz noodling. He then "phoned in" an apology to the object of his derision, attributing the vitriol to a case of "hair envy."

While there was enough decade-spanning flash-and-fun for all, the evening's most affecting moments came from a triptych of decidedly modern folk-flavored tunes: "From Galway to Graceland," the tale of an Irish Elvis fan who spruces up her dull life with a Memphis pilgrimage that doesn't really change anything; "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a heartbreaking ode to a rare motorcycle; and "Beeswing," a potent slice of life and emotion, as the song's narrator pursues the love of a gentle free spirit, who slips away when he tries to tie her down. The third tune, a gem from the deleted Mirror Blue, is thankfully restored on the new anthology.

Thompson's electric shows are usually full of Stratocaster gymnastics that resonate for weeks. But his technique is just as striking in the circumspect acoustic performance, and the power of his songwriting truly emerges. Future archivists will seek out these songs as tintypes of modern times, in the same way that Thompson and his contemporaries in Fairport Convention scoured the ancient British folk tradition. The good news is that said archivists won't need to visit musty museums for their reward.

Written by CHARLES BERMANT for RollingStone.com News

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