A Fan's Notes: Guitarist Richard Thompson Print
Tuesday, 21 August 2007 04:09
Image By Chip Lovitt - GJD Contributor
The first time I heard British folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson was on a Fairport Convention LP called What We Did On Our Holidays. It must have been about 1968.

I was a keen student of the British folk-rock movement, and as one of the first British folk outfits to plug into electric instruments, Fairport had a unique sound all its own. The album was the perfect confluence of traditional British music, mid-60's American folk sounds, and rousing rock 'n' roll. It featured a treasure trove of terrific songs, some original and some cover songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. The band had two excellent singers, Ian Matthews and the legendary Sandy Denny, perhaps my favorite female vocalist of all time.

But what really caught my attention was a song by Richard Thompson called "Meet on the Ledge." A powerful, melodic and melancholy masterpiece, the song was full of powerful vocal harmonies and this soulful and stirring electric guitar that gave the song a fiery rock edge.

I was hooked. For the next few years, I snapped up each successive Fairport LP, from Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief to Full House, which would be the final Fairport LP with Richard Thompson as a full-time member. There was something about Thompson's playing that was (and still is) unique. He could rock and play country-style bends, but he could also incorporate rapid-fire lines from old fiddle tunes and Celtic-flavored stylings into his sound.

As legendary producer Joe Boyd put it in his wonderful memoir, White Bicycles, "In his playing you can hear his evocation of the Scottish piper's drone and the melody of the chanter, as well as echoes of Barney Kessel's and James Burton's guitars, and Jerry Lee Lewis' piano."

In 1971, Thompson began what would be a long and successful solo career with his first record, Henry the Human Fly. Full of moody but catchy songs, the record featured a brilliant blend of acoustic and electric guitarwork.

Later Thompson married singer Linda Peters, and the pair formed a duo. They released a string of acclaimed recording such as Hokey Pokey, I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight, and their masterpiece, Shoot Out the Lights, which probed the dark side of life and love, all done with unforgettable melodies, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and Thompson's stirring Strat-based guitar lines.

richard thompson 1.jpg After the pair split up in 1982, Thompson resumed his solo recording and performing career, touring as both an acoustic guitar-toting one-man show and with full bands. He released a series of memorable CDs, including Across a Crowded Room and Rumour and Sigh, which featured classic Thompson songs like "When the Spell is Broken," "I Misunderstood," and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a furiously fingerpicked tune about a vintage motorcycle and the outlaw who rode it. The tune would become a showstopper in Thompson's live sets and still remains a centerpiece of his show today.

Thompson's current credits include more than 35 CDs, including the soundtrack for the movie, Grizzly Man, as well as a series of live CDs only available through Thompson's website. I'm such a devoted fan that I have nearly all of his official recordings, as well as thirty years worth of live bootlegs.

As you might expect, when I found out Thompson would be touring with an electric band in the summer of 2007, I eagerly bought tickets and headed to the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York. I have never been disappointed by a Richard Thompson show and this one was no exception.

Leading off with a flurry of tunes from his recent release, Sweet Warrior, Thompson unleashed a flood of stinging staccato bursts from his Ferrington electric guitar to kick off the show with the opening track from the CD, "Needle and Thread." With the versatile Pete Zorn on horns, guitar, mandolin, Taras Preodaniuk on bass, and Michael Jerome on drums, the band served notice that it was here to rock.

Continuing with more tunes from Sweet Warrior-"Bad Monkey, "Mr. Stupid, and "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" (about the war in Iraq), Thompson then shifted gears by blending the sounds of a Celtic jig with Middle-eastern rhythms in "One Door Opens." He also delivered a string of older fan favorites, like "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" and "Wrong Heartbeat" from his days with his ex-wife.

In the middle of the set, the band left the stage, and Thompson proceeded to dazzle the crowd with a solo acoustic set that included "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." The song is an acoustic tour de force with some of the fastest and most intricate fingerpicking I've ever heard. The tune brought the crowd to its feet, demonstrating the power of one man, one guitar, ten fingers, and a great story-song about Red Molly and the biker-outlaw James.

Thompson is not only a master of his instrument. He's also a prolific and tuneful songwriter, a powerful singer, and a hilarious entertainer, who peppers his audiences with one-liners, and wry, sly asides that never fail to get a laugh.

He ended the show with "Wall of Death," which despite its grim name is actually a rollicking song about amusement park rides.

There's a reason why Rolling Stone magazine named Richard Thompson one of the Top 20 guitar players of all time. Whether on acoustic or electric, he is in a class all by himself, with an eclectic style that is totally unique and original. No one sounds like him, and he sounds like no one else.

There's a reason, too, why his songs have been covered by folks like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Los Lobos, REM, Nanci Griffith, David Gilmour and others. His songs have a way of insinuating themselves into your brain and staying there. Once you hear 'em, you can't shake 'em or forget 'em.

Thompson is somewhat of a cult figure, unknown to mainstream musical audiences. But those in the know agree he has few peers as a guitarist and songwriter. Trust me, people; I've seen 'em all. If you want to explore what an electric and acoustic guitar can do in the hands of a master and true original, check him out.

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