by Mike Corrigan
I have trouble getting my head around the incomparable Richard Thompson. He's added so much to the vocabulary of popular music, delighted fans, influenced peers, inspired followers, and managed it all with such class that it's impossible for me not to feel just a little overwhelmed at the thought of writing a profile. Where does one start? And how does one begin to condense into a paltry few hundred words a musical sojourn that spans three decades and has taken this Londoner deep into the marrow of folk and rock?
Thompson makes an all-too-rare Spokane appearance at the Met next Thursday night. The performance -- as are the other seven stops on this short U.S. tour -- will be solo acoustic in nature, giving fans an opportunity to experience Thompson's many gifts undiluted.
Thompson possesses a triple threat of talent. His guitar-playing is technically dazzling and inventive yet subtle (he's just as worthy of the "Guitar God" title as that "other" British axeman). His songwriting is literate and richly textured, infused with dark humor and disarming honesty. His resonant vocal style is remarkable and immediately recognizable.
From an early age, growing up in post-war London, Thompson was exposed to an assortment of American jazz, folk and early rock 'n' roll. He first gained international notoriety in the late '60s as one of the founding members of Fairport Convention, a wonderfully English complement to both the electrified folk-pop of the Byrds and the folk-informed blues-rock of the Band. Anchored by Thompson's songwriting and distinctive guitar-playing, singer Sandy Denny's astonishingly pure and expressive vocals and enriched by a wealth of British folk traditions, the Fairports enjoyed a brief but intensely creative golden era, producing a string of terrific albums (Fairport Convention, What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief and Full House) before Thompson left in early 1971 to pursue solo interests. (For the record, Fairport Convention, after having endured literally dozens of lineup changes over the years, is still out there, primarily as an interpreter of traditional British folk.)
While ensemble players often wilt under the demands of singular artistic endeavor, Thompson thrived -- creatively, if not always commercially. Though his reputation as a guitarist and songwriter had been well established among critics and fans during his Fairport days, Thompson's first solo outing, Richard Thompson Starring as Henry the Human Fly, earned the dubious stateside distinction of being Warner Brothers' worst-selling album of all time. Crappy sales notwithstanding, the album is noteworthy for establishing Thompson as a talent in his own right and as the beginning of his professional and personal relationship with singer Linda Peters, with whom he would soon make some of the best music of his career.
Thompson and Peters were married soon after the album's release and embarked on an artistic collaboration that would last the better part of a decade. They earned themselves critical success and a fervent cult following on both sides of the Atlantic on the strength of albums such as I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver. Their union culminated with 1982's intimate yet undeniably epic Shoot Out the Lights, a stirring and painfully candid account of a deteriorating relationship (their own), rightfully hailed as one of the most powerful and timeless works of the rock era. Ironically, as the accolades for Shoot Out the Lights started pouring in, garnering the Thompsons some long overdue mainstream recognition, the couple dissolved their partnership and their marriage.
Returning to solo ventures, Thompson's songwriting continued to evolve as seemingly dissimilar musical influences (African, zydeco, rockabilly, even punk) seeped into his folk-rock lexicon. He assembled musicians, vocalists and producers to help him flesh out ideas in the studio and back him up on his frequent world tours. He spent the years between 1987 and 1999 on Capitol, releasing one album after another of amazing consistency (the high points have been recently compiled on Action Packed: The Best of the Capitol Years). In 1999, the wonderful Mock Tudor was his last for the label. During the '90s, he was also the subject of at least two tribute albums -- testaments to the love and respect Thompson enjoys among his peers (1995's Beat the Retreat features R.E.M., David Byrne, X, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Shawn Colvin and Bob Mould).
Ultimately, what has set Thompson apart from so many of his contemporaries is personal and professional integrity -- a commitment to art over commerce. Whether this virtue is intrinsic or a happy (though unintentional) by-product of his persistent status as a cult performer is irrelevant. Those who have discovered Thompson's garden of sublime delights care only that he continues to dazzle with the same passion that has carried him through these many years.
Legend? Sure. A good time? Absolutely. Recommended? Need you ask?
Meanwhile, This Weekend Just so you won't have to go live music hungry this weekend, here's some sound advice in which to invest your time and lunch money. It's all local and it all happens this Saturday night -- by my calculation, the highest rock-per-square-foot ratio of the week. Enjoy.
The all-ages crowd should consider staking out a claim stage-side for the second installment of RAWK's Final Four competition at Club Soda. Manifest, the Agreement, One Example, Malfunction, the Crescendos are on deck. Time? 7 pm. Cost? $10.
For those of you looking to enhance your live music experience with some cheap suds, head on over to the Quarterhorse for the mathrock meltdown featuring local bands Chinese Sky Candy and Rand-Univac. Larren Wolford (formerly the singer of Cho*Very*Gu) will open the show starting in the neighborhood of 9 pm. The cover charge is $5.
And at the B-Side, there's a fairly heavy dose of rocking and rhyming to contend with in the form of Elderstaar, After Eyes Are Gone and Mourning After. You should get there by 9:30 pm with a fiver and your I.D. ready.