Brighton Dome, Thurs 3rd Feb (Photo below by Anthony Pepitone)
It’s not strictly true to say that Richard Thompson was the first act I ever saw live. For one thing, it was during the days of Richard and Linda Thompson. For another, they were playing first support to Fairport Convention at the Cropredy Festival, to which I went with my Dad sometime near the start of the Eighties. So my first band was either Fairport themselves, or one of the long-forgotten second-supporters who filled that summer’s afternoon. (We watched them whilst eating sandwiches out of the tupperware tub usually reserved for holidays. But I digress...)
Since then I think I may have seen him at the evenly paced rate of once a decade. Performing solo in the Nineties, then doing the Thousand Years of Song thing a few years ago. But since that long-gone Oxfordshire field, this is the first time I’ve seen him with a full band.
With a back catalogue rivals would swap eye teeth for, Thompson casually announces the whole first half of the set will be given over to the new album, ’Dream Attic.’ I have, I will confess a patchy knowledge of his oeuvre, having flitted between the commonly accepted peaks. (Well there are over twenty albums to catch up on, even if you exclude the Fairport stuff, the collaborations and the soundtracks.) So this may be the equivalent of reaching in and pulling out a random disc for trial... If so, his average is pretty high indeed, for it held my attention right the way through. I could well have believed it to be some 'best-of' selection.
It transpires that this new album was actually recorded live. (I doubt there to be many live albums of entirely new songs.) Though the stated purpose of this was to avoid too much rehearsing the live effect was curiously almost the opposite of Patti Smith’s – as tight as she was loose. Perhaps through having toured the US first, the band were as well-rehearsed as anything you’ve ever heard, you could have set your watch to them. They’d just been learning on the job.
Record shops like to slot his wares neatly into the ‘folk’ section of their establishments. Essentially smallholders themselves, they picture him staking out his turf with a picket fence. (And indeed, for my part, I will doubtless give this write-up a ‘folk’ tag-word prior to posting.) But Thompson himself clearly spies the musical landscape more like a paraglider, floating across it to wherever the wind and his fancy takes him.
The common denominator is probably a rootsy kind of rock, but the band race through styles and instruments as if oblivious to all distinctions. ‘Big Sun Falling In the River’ is like a sequel to the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset.’ Another number turns out to have a folk reel nested within it, like the yolk running inside an egg.
Yet, for all that, what Thompson is truly the master of is duende. This Spanish term is sometimes translated as “soul” but a better definition might be “exquisite sadness.” It seems peculiar indeed that we lack a direct English word for the feeling I associate more with English folk, that everything is bound up with it’s opposite, that joy must always border sorrow and vice versa. More than once I wondered if I was hearing a love or an anti-love song, before realising that was the very point.
Though the notoriously dour tone of his songs sometimes turns to the bleak (a running joke to fans and performer alike), they are never defeatist but instead defiant or even transcendent. There’s quite often humour, though normally of the blackest hue. (Confuse duende not with Sixth Form whingers such as Radiohead!) This is perhaps most evident in the timbre of Thompson’s voice, which is tremulous without ever sounding affected. (Sandy Denny is generally thought of as “the voice” of the Fairport crowd, eclipsing the value of Thompson’s.)
So strong, in fact, is the new album that when weakness hit it was in the second half. Thompson is of course known as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. Fairport were famously taken up when Joe Boyd heard a Thompson solo. So solos are something to expect. And, though I have a post-punk disdain of solos, I don’t normally find Thompson’s too annoying, too show-offy. But, letting their hair down towards the end of the evening, the band indulged in the anathema practise of relay soloing! It was like too many buses turning up at the same time, after you had already walked the whole way and spied home.
Despite his dour subject matter, Thompson cuts an avuncular stage presence. At one point he boasts cheerily of his first solo album being the worst-selling in Warner’s history. “But are they laughing now?” he asks us. “Yes,” he reassures. “They are.” His career arc went from such stalling beginnings to national treasure stage without necessarily having the success bit in the middle. He’s regularly given slaps on the back instead of sales, he was recently given (no, really!) the Order of the British Empire and the new album is up for a Grammy.
The venue is near full, as it has been for previous decades. But his audience seems confined to a demographic. I don’t often feel younger and less middle class than the average gig attendee, and I am not at all sure I like the feeling. Perhaps I am only here due to my Dad’s efforts, in taking me to that Oxfordshire field back in the old times.
Perhaps that is the downside of having an OBE pinned on you, younger folks feel that at most they need doff a cap in your direction. The Patti Smith gig had a notably broader clientele. And yet musically Thompson could not be a better antidote to the notion that folk is all old codgers whining into their real ale about things not being what they were. Though I was yet to go and see Blyth Power (more of them anon), surely there is space for some audience crossover there.
Coming soon! Some gig-going adventures...