Gig review – Richard Thompson/ Joseinne Clark & Ben Walker

Richard Thompson/Joseinne Clark & Ben Walker

Edinburgh Usher Hall, October 17, 2017

I’ve seen a number of gigs at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall before. However, tonight there is a mobile phone ban in place, which whilst fair enough from stopping people posting ropey video online or – God forbid, having phone conversations, makes trying to remember details for a review rather hard if you phone is the medium for making notes.

That irritant aside, Richard Thompson’s latest visit to the Scottish capital showed just why his reputation continues to grow fifty years into his career. The support act of Joseinne Clarke and Ben Walker are aptly chosen to warm up the crowd. Clarke’s self-deprecating brand of humour is lovely – and should she ever decide to give up singing, comedy would be an excellent alternative. Their set is bookended with Thompson connections – starting with a cover of Fairport Convention’s ‘Reynardine’ and finishing with their take on Nick Drake’s ‘Time Has Told Me’; on which Thompson played (along with no less than three Fairport Convention albums that year). They have recently released a new EP The Birds on Rough Trade – and the title track also gets an airing. It’s a fantastic place to start with their music.

With Richard Thompson, I must confess to finding it harder and harder to write reviews. Not because he isn’t good, he’s bloody fantastic. It’s more about trying to avoid cliché and repetition, and to avoid simply fawning. This year has seen him release two new acoustic albums (Acoustic Classics Volume II and Rarities), as well as playing with Fairport at their annual Cropredy Festival. He sets the bar extremely high by opening with ‘Gethsemane’ and ‘The Ghost Of You Walks.’

Trying to examine exactly why it is that he is such a compelling performer, whether solo or not, it’s a mixture of certain things. Guitar playing that is intense – but is inclusive and draws you in, rather than feeling that it is a virtuoso trying to keep you at bay. Equally it’s matched with that baritone – oh, and a wonderful sense of humour.

As is the case, the set is a mixture of well-known songs from across his career, and well as a few unknown gems. So we get an acknowledgement of his half-century with his respectful interpretation of Fairport’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ paying tribute to Sandy Denny, the song’s writer. From the Rarities album we get ‘They Tore The Hippodrome Down’ which deserves to be elevated from rarity to the Thompson Classic songbook.

He acknowledges that he’s not always had a lot of chart success – but when he plays the should have been a chart hit ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ you can’t help thinking that it’s the public’s loss, not his fault. He’s understandably still smirking about an event a few years later when his then latest album debuted above that of his seventies contemporaries Yes’ latest album. When the set includes classics like ‘I Feel So Good,’ ‘Beeswing’ and ‘From Galway To Graceland’ who could fail to be wowed? That’s before you consider the masterclass in songwriting that is ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952,’ his contribution to making sure that Britain had songs about the road to rival America.

There’s so much musicality seeping form his every pore that it seems not to matter whether he plays with a band or not. He manages to play the guitar in such a way that it seems that a rhythm section is present within it. There may be countless imitators – but there’s no-one who can touch him.

Album Review – Richard Thompson

A mere two months after the release of Acoustic Classics II, Richard Thompson has given us a third collection of acoustic workings of music from his back catalogue. It’s quite a fitting way to continue to mark the fifty years since he co-formed the seminal British folk-rock band Fairport Convention.
A word about the title: Rarities often implies that it’s music that hasn’t really circulated because it’s offcuts, music that has been tucked away on b-sides, soundtrack albums or -God forbid – simply that it wasn’t really very good. In this case, put any such concerns to one side: he has amassed a number of great songs over time, and these songs are deserving of being heard, stripped down to voice and guitar.
If Bob Dylan can be considered the songwriter’s songwriter in America, then Thompson must surely be the frontline contender for the British title. A number of these titles have been covered by other artists previously -‘Seven Brothers’ by Blair Dunlop, and ‘Rainbow Over The Hill’ by the Albion Band. Six of the fourteen have been unreleased – and while all high in quality, they’re very different in approach. The album gets of to a rather dark and angry start with ‘What If’ and the reflective ‘They Tore The Hippodrome Down.’ The latter feels like a cousin to one of Muswell Hill’s other famous songwriter’s – Ray Davies of The Kinks, and their 1983 single ‘Come Dancing.’ There’s the humour of the ode to one of the most important inventors ever ‘Alexander Graham Bell’ and the very European sounding ‘I Must Have A March’ which sounds like it really should have been sung by Marlene Dietrich (except that she’s namechecked in the song) or by Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
Some of the tracks have been around for a while – there’s two tracks from the final Fairport album that Thompson appeared on, Fullhouse, ‘Sloth’ and ‘Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman.’ From the years with his then-wife Linda we get ”Never Again’ and ‘End Of The Rainbow.’ It’s not a hotch-potch; the reality is that an album that is almost entirely voice and acoustic guitar is powerful and commands your attention. If it had been written as an entire album it would still have worked.
Are there other Thompson titles I’d like to hear if he continues his acoustic series? To pick three out of the air:  ‘Dry My Tears And Move On’ from Mock Tudor, ‘Roll Over Vaughan Williams’ from Henry The Human Fly and a version of Fairport’s Sandy Denny’s still astonishing ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ to name a handful – I’m sure every Thompson fan has their own ideas on what should be covered. Suffice to say, yet again, Thompson has produced an album that draws on his back catalogue and stands on its own merits.
****
Acoustic Rarities is out now
Check out ‘They tore the hippodrome down’ here (for some reason this will not post!

Album Review – Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson -‘ Acoustic Classics II.’ (Beeswing)

There’s no shortage of half-century anniversaries to mark in the music world this year. Whether it’s Sergeant Pepper, Forever Changes or The Velvet Underground & Nico (to list three of a very long list indeed), it’s important to note that this year marks fifty years since Richard Thompson, then still a teenager, co-formed Fairport Convention, thus paving the way for British folk-rock.

Since then, of course, he’s been very highly regarded – and perhaps surprisingly, his highest charting works solo have been over the last ten years. One of those was the first Acoustic Classics album. As with this volume, it’s not a stopgap release. Rather, whilst an excellent electric guitarist and bandleader, the strength of Thompson’s singing, guitar playing and songwriting means that stripped down to just voice and acoustic guitar the listener gets a new insight into fourteen songs from his spectacular back catalogue.

It’s a fairly wide selection across his career. From the Fairport Convention days there’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’ and ‘Meet On The Ledge;’ from the days when he played with his wife Linda ‘Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair’ and from the last thirty years there’s ‘Pharoah’ from Amnesia, ‘Keep Your Distance’ from Rumor & Sigh (a contender for his best album) and ‘Bathsheba Smiles’ from Mock Tudor. They may be less well-known songs than those represented on the first Acoustic album, but none the worse for that.

What both Acoustic albums – and there’s more on the way, apparently – manage to achieve is that due to to the sheer magic contained within, they stand as albums in their own right. This album is perhaps darker – demonstrating that along with the humour displayed in his work (check out ‘Hots For The Smarts’ or ‘Don’t Step On My Jimmy Shands’), there is ability to reflect the variance of all human emotion within his work.

Whether this is the best place to start with Richard Thompson’s work (shame on you! Get with the programme, Godammit), as opposed to a compilation of better-known tracks is open to debate. Half a century’s work that has been covered by artists as diverse as Dinosaur Jr, Elvis Costello and June Tabor (and that’s a small list of those who have covered his work) is going to give a lot of people a lot of individual favourites. For my money, it demonstrates an important cross-section of his work, showing why he is so highly regarded and why his fanbase continues to grow. Hell, while many artists of his age are losing their singing voices, Thompson sounds ever more powerful.

If you haven’t heard Richard Thompson’s work before, there’s nothing to be lost by starting here. If you are an afficianado, you’ll want this as a wonderfully listenable example of his work.

Acoustic Classics is released on August 11.

Gig Review – Richard Thompson/The Rails

Richard Thompson/The Rails
Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, September 6

I’ve starting to lose count of how many times I’ve seen Richard Thompson live over the last ten years, but it was an unexpected benefit to find that the support act this evening was The Rails, comprised of his daughter Kami Thompson and his son-in-law James Walbourne. Though this isn’t acknowledged until the headline act, it’s a wisely chosen support act. The close harmonies of this husband and wife team are fantastic and even to those not familiar with their music (for shame!) are won over. Shortly to release a new EP Australia, we get a fantastic set comprising songs from the new EP, including the title track, ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ and ‘Willow Tree.’ They also give us songs from their debut album Fair Warning, including ‘The Panic Attack Blues’ which James tells us was written after going on a bender with Shane MacGowan. They conclude their set with a cover of Edwyn Collins (their favourite Scotsman – he’s produced them), entitled ‘Low Expectations.’ Whilst not one of Collins’ better-known songs, it certainly deserves to be.

Richard Thompson is on tour promoting his most recent album Still, amazingly his first top ten album in his native UK. Produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo fame, it’s yet another amazing collection of songs that shows why those in the know (and that number is still growing) rate him so highly. For his opening number he is joined by The Rails, observing that ‘nepotism will get you everywhere in this business.’ They start his set with ‘That’s Enough’ from the Thompson album Family. Thompson’s onstage banter has long been one of the joys of watching him live, telling us that the songs was written for the Occupy Wall Street Movement but a year too late, remarking ruefully that this is typical of his career. Not for the fans, Richard, not for the fans.

And it’s a career-spanning set. So highlights from Still like the album’s closer ‘Guitar Heroes’ (great on record, astonishing live) and ‘Beatnik Walking’ mingle in a set that stretches his career. Mostly backed by a pretty hot rhythm section, we do get two solo numbers, Fairport Convention’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’ followed by ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952.’ The latter has been described as his attempt to write a ‘British road song’ and the intensity of his performance is something to behold. But we also get two numbers from Shoot Out The Lights ‘Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?’ and ‘Wall Of Death’ alongside ‘Al Bowlly’s In Heaven,’ ‘Dry My Tears And Move On’ and ‘For Shame Of Doing Wrong.’

Sure, I’m a big fan, what faults can I possibly pick? Well, I think he may have fluffed some of the words on ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ and there’s lots of other songs from his back catalogue I’d love to have heard. But this is clutching at straws. In all seriousness: if I was told that I had to pick only one artist I could ever see live again, it would be Richard Thompson.

Album Review – Richard Thompson

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Richard Thompson -‘Still’ (Proper)

They say we live in the best of all possible worlds. If so, how come Richard Thompson doesn’t seem to be as revered worldwide as Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton? Because he’s got the songwriting chops of the former and is easily the equal if not the greater of the latter when it comes to the guitar. And fifty years into his music career, he is still at the top of his game. Vocally while other contemporaries of his age seem to be struggling, his warm baritone is as fine as ever.

So are there any advancements on this album? Well, it’s no longer news (unless you read the wrong magazines of course) that this album was produced by Jeff Tweedy (of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco fame). And the songs are as fine as ever, with many new fine additions to the already impressive Thompson songbook. The women in Thompson’s songs are not mere submissive groupies, he often seems to regret in his songs that he’s not been able to get them to stay.

It’s not to say that I got into this album immediately – because I didn’t. But what each successive play over the past few months has revealed is that it is full of more fine additions to the Thompson catalogue, and it is up there with the best work he has produced (Rumour & Sigh, Shoot Out The Lights, Mock Tudor and so on). Not everyone can get away with starting an album with a ballad, as Thompson does where with ‘She Never Could Resist A Winding Road’ but Richard Thompson does it with aplomb. And he’s always been able to be clever and funny with it (as you’d expect from a guy who wrote a song called ‘Hots For The Smarts.’) ‘Guitar Heroes’ manages to cleverly play tribute to those who inspired him, and still work as a song – you’ll need to listen to it to understand it. And ‘Long John Silver’ ‘Beatnik Walking’ and ‘Patty Don’t You Put Me Down’…just fine, fine songs.

So if you’re already a fan, you will know what to expect, and you will still marvel. If you’ve never heard his work, why not start here?

****1/2

Two awesome albums for you to check out

Apologies for being rather quiet round here the last few days – I’ve been waylaid by a summer cold, and as ever, have way too many submissions to listen to, never even mind writing about!

These two albums, however, are ones that you should take the time to listen to, and indeed, go and buy.

Yukon Blonde

Yukon Blonde’s third album On Blonde (see what they did there?) is out on June 15 and you can stream it over on Spin.com.

richard-thompson

Meanwhile, I never tire of going on about the genius that is Richard Thompson and you can stream his latest album Still either via NPR is you’re in the US, it’s out there on June 23, or if you are based in the UK, via The Guardian. It’s out here on June 29.

Gig Review – Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson, Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, August 25

It takes a really special skill to be able to walk out onto a stage with scarcely any more equipment than a street busker. But Richard Thompson really is a special kind of artist. It’s not the first time he’s played Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, armed with just his guitar, a few effects and a mike. But the fact remains that no matter how many times I’ve seen him, he still blows his audience away.

His latest album, Acoustic Classics, is his own attempt to convey what just some of his back catalogue stripped down to just him and his acoustic guitar sound lie. For someone frequently reckoned to be one of England’s finest electric guitarist, that might seem either leaving one of his main strengths behind or a way of conning more money out of your audience, if you wanted to be cynical. The fact is that it shows why he has such a fantastic songbook, and tonight’s gig reinforces just that.

Not only is he a master of all trades (singer, guitarist, songwriter) but he’s also a pretty witty raconteur. Early on in the set he plays ‘Valerie,’ casually fluffs up the intro and makes a joke out of it, being as he’s played it so many times. He goes on to deliver a version that is even better than on record – there’s comedians playing the now-ending festival that would do well to learn from him how to handle an audience.

And with a songbook like his – going back to very nearly half a century – he has an awesome array of tunes at his disposal. So we get a number of tunes that have reappeared on Acoustic Classics – ‘Walking On A Wire’ ‘ Persuasion’ ‘I Misunderstood’ and of course the fabulous English road song that is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning.’ We get a number that didn’t – including tracks from last year’s brilliant Electric -‘Stony Ground’ and ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People,’ as well as ‘The Ghost Of You Walks’ ‘Dry My Tears And Move On’ and ‘Pharoah’ (he introduces the latter as being his ‘paranoia’ song).

Yet perhaps the most moving moment of the night is when he talks about being in Fairport Convention and it’s clear he misses Sandy Denny still. And then he plays ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ I have honestly never cried at a gig before, but it was intensely moving and I wasn’t the only bloke playing with their glasses in the dark trying to make out they had something in their eye.

And justly, our man goes off to a standing ovation, before giving us ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Wall Of Death’ for encores (and another standing ovation). Even into the 2010s, Richard Thompson is continuing to win new admirers (the kid in front of me was ten years old, if that) and finally, getting the chart positions that he deserves.

A performance that touched a loyal and loving audience.

Acoustic Classics is out now on Beeswing/Proper

Album Review – Richard Thompson

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Richard Thompson -‘Acoustic Classics.’ (Beeswing/Proper)

There are many who might describe themselves as ‘singer-songwriter-guitarists’ but in Richard Thompson’s case, it’s true: he excel at all of them. And while many of his generation may find their voices starting to fade, his remains as strong as ever.

And while this concept – studio-recorded versions of fourteen songs from his (outstanding) back catalogue might be money for old rope in the hands of many, in Mr. Thompson’s case, it shows that not only is he incredibly gifted, but even stripped down to just him and a guitar, they lose nothing. Having seen him live both solo and with a band, I can attest to just how well these songs can work stripped down.

His solo career stretches back to 1972, and this album contains a lot of classics – ‘From Galway To Graceland’ and ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ as well as numbers from when he recorded with his then-wife Linda: ‘Wall Of Death,’ ‘Shoot Out The Lights’ and ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.’

It’s not a greatest hits album, but if you’ve never heard his music (for shame! for shame!), then this is a good place to start. If you know his music, this works very well as an album in its own right.

****

Acoustic Classics is out now on Beeswing/Proper

Gig review: Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson: Usher Hall, Edinburgh, February 28, 2013

Despite the fact that he now resides in America, Richard Thompson has made a number of visits to Edinburgh over the past few years. I’ve seen him no less than three times at this city’s Queen’s Hall venue since 2005, but this time he was promoting his new album, appropriately entitled Electric, and he was here as part of a three-piece band. Michael Jerome (drums) and Taras Prodaniuk (bass) were certainly what muso-types might refer to as ‘tight’ and in the absence of any female backing singers (and I suspect we aren’t going to see him onstage with Linda Thompson, any more than Sandy Denny’s going to be back to play with him), their harmonies certainly added to the sound.

Electric his new album has given him his highest chart placing in the UK ever (no.16) and not surprisingly it formed the basis for much of tonight’s gig. The album is Thompson firing on all cylinders and if it’s not quite as amazing as some of the records he has made over his forty years plus in the business, it’s because he has set the bar so high. Certainly; no-one can really accuse him of relying on past glories, and songs like ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People’ ‘Sally B’ and ‘Salford Sunday’ (which he acknowledges as being more about the Salford described in Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town than where the BBC has now decamped to) are welcome additions to the fine inventory that is the Richard Thompson songbook.

But he also delved into his back catalogue and treated us to both ‘Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?’ and ‘Wall Of Death’ from 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, the murder ballad ‘Sidney Wells’ from Dream Attic and to the delight of the crowd ‘For Shame Of Doing Wrong’ from Pour Down Like Silver. Sure, there were ommissions – ‘I Feel So Good’ ‘Dry My Tears and Move On’ ‘Turning Of The Tide’…but the reality is that genius though he undoubtedly is, even Richard Thompson can only cram so many songs into a two hour set.

Amongst the encores was a cover of ‘Hey Joe’ acknowledging that he was playing as part of a power trio, like the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream. The latter may have made a global superstar of Eric Clapton, but I can’t help feeling that of all the sixties singers, Thompson is the one who still has it,voice, songwriting skills and all.

May we have another visit soon, please?