A night in the house Richard built

The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Portland, February 2019

No one could accuse Richard Thompson of being on-trend. For almost half a century he’s written songs and played a guitar, rarely rising above the status of cult hero, musician’s musician, or – the most back-handed compliment of all – critics’ darling.

On a snowy February night at Portland’s Revolution Hall, he’s still at it – touring with his band and playing songs from a record he released last year. As for trends, some 850 people have come out, filling the venue to capacity, to hear him do so.

It’s the fourth time I’ve seen the Englishman (at this stage a living folk-rock legend) perform. The first was in a packed tent in rainy field in the Irish midlands more than a decade ago – the stand-out track that afternoon being a version of “From Galway To Graceland“, his song about a Elvis fan who makes that trek, believing she’s set to marry The King.

In 2011 and 2015 I attended his shows – the latter an acoustic set, not unlike a show in Thompson’s living room – at Vicar Street in Dublin. These two gigs had all the traits of the first – blistering guitar work and an acerbic, if not outright sarcastic, stage manner.

Revolution Hall last Monday was more of the same: the guitar and the palaver, underpinned by the songs. New ones too – at least half the set was composed of tunes from “13 Rivers”, Thompson’s most recent release – a stronger, leaner set of songs than his some of his recent albums.

As befitted the time (Monday night, heavy weather, mid-winter), the set leaned toward the ominous on occasion (new song “The Storm Won’t Come” in particular), before Thompson – job done, Stratocaster turned down – produced the classics, the old favorites he’d advised then audience to wait around for, at the start of the show.

These included – most notably – a version of Fairport Convention’s “Genesis Hall”, dusted off and remodeled after almost 50 years, “Beeswing”, “Wall of Death” and – his calling card (and possibly his albatross) – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, whose opening riff was enough to justify the audience’s weeknight trip through snow and ice.

The highlight – for me, at least – took place during the first encore, when Thompson performed “Dimming of the Day”, his love song for onetime wife Linda Thompson, solo and acoustic. The performance was simple, stark and clear – no irony, no pyrotechnics. Who doesn’t want a love song – albeit a desperate, pleading one – to end the evening?

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After the snow

The ice – cornered – clings,
The sun above seeks it out.
The earth returns.

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You’ve got to get this into your life

Imagine turning on a TV show and hearing a new Beatles song. Impossible, of course – unless it’s another Abbey Road crate-scaping exercise.

Or so I thought. Until I watched the final scene in the latest episode of “Crashing.” As Pete Holmes strolls into the loved-up distance with his new flame, out bursts a song so catchy, so jaunty, so 1966 Paul McCartney, that it could only be The Beatles – or so it seemed.

But I’d never heard it before. Cue a scramble for my phone, a quick Shazam, and there was the answer. It was “New“, it was McCartney, and it was released in 2013. Yet it sounds more “Got To Get You Into My Life” than, er, “Got To Get You Into My Life.”

The fact that I hadn’t heard “New” until now speaks more to my musical prejudices than the song’s impact, or brilliance. Since when have I thought: “Damn, I better drop everything and listen to that new Paul McCartney album?”

And yet McCartney keeps doing it. Half a century after he wrote “Love Me Do” with John Lennon, he still had enough creative juice to knock out “New”. Which is something of a lesson to creative folks – if you like doing something, never stop.

It’s also a lesson to those of us who give up on artists, or at least give up interest in the recent work. Don’t stop listening – there’s always something new (sorry.)

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The piano player and the perfect playlist

Elton John, Portland, 2019

It must be thrill to create a perfect piece of music, to touch or capture such a elusive thing. Some musicians do it once or twice, some a little more often – very few have achieved it repeatedly, over decades.

I’m not the biggest Elton John fan. For years – probably because of a string of cheesy ‘80s music videos – I avoided his work entirely. That’s long since changed, which is how I found myself sitting – with 20,000 other people – in Portland’s Moda Center last Saturday night, witnessing the man’s last go-round, his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.

Perfection was in the air. I’ve attended hundreds of shows over the years, but never one with such a bulletproof setlist.  

As he moved from one classic pop song to the next, I wondered how it must feel to be the guy sitting behind the piano, knowing that you’ve written a bunch of pretty-much perfect popular songs? To play a set so tight that there’s no room for “Honky Cat” or “Sacrifice” – tunes that would be the high point of most other composers’ nights?

Having written two dozen or more great songs, where do you go next? Are you tormented by them, or are they like cash in the bank (in more ways that one), a form of artistic security to be drawn down when necessary? Are you bored? (How may times and ways can you play the piano solo on “Bennie And The Jets”?)

Maybe the burden of perfection doesn’t weigh heavy. Perhaps, like Elton John, you handle it by just playing the songs. He looked like he enjoyed his three hours on stage in Portland. The audience – including this awed listener – certainly did.

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Mrs Dalloway

Past – present – future.
The clock chimes today and I hear it in Dublin in 1999,
As it sounds in a dozen other places.

I hear it on the Broad Walk in Regent’s Park,
Days before New Year’s, and in early December.

Looking onto Dublin Bay, it sounds over the wind
As I run on the sands, and as I stand to face a furious winter storm.

“Am I alive in all these places, at all these times, at once?”
I asked myself, on the day I finished “Mrs Dalloway’.

“Traces suspended, like fog in trees.
Echoes and marks on places and people?”

Maybe we do survive death, and linger on, awhile.
Until our echoes dissolve in the air.

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London – walking in wonder and unease

There’s something beautiful and eerie about Regent’s Park – the large, green and often empty space just minutes from London’s West End.

I’ve felt this on the many occasions that I’ve been there over the years. When my wife and I frequently travelled to London some years back, we would usually stay at a nearby hotel, from whence I’d set out for 5k or 10k runs early in the morning. My route would take me around the Outer Circle and partly into the park, and more than once I felt wholly alone, my only company the statues that occasionally appeared out of the early morning fog.

Even at noon, when families and office workers throng the Broad Walk that runs through the center of the park, three minutes walking off a side path can bring you to solitude.

Last Saturday I did something I’d never done before – circumambulate the park at night. We’d just arrived off a flight from Dublin, and the previous day had been a long one. I set out alone, to take the air, and discovered that our accommodation was less than 10 minutes from Regent’s Park.

And so, in the darkness, encountering only the occasional walker and a small number of passing cars (London was empty, it was the holidays), I walked the three miles around the Outer Circle. Part of it was lit by a long row of street lamps, another part in total darkness – which made traversing the old, broken pavement that bit more difficult.

The atmosphere was what I remembered, though: an air of natural beauty, even at night, offset with an occasional start, as when an animal (or something else) would break cover in the undergrowth on the other side of the park fence.

In my mind I thought of Maurice Bendrix, the main character in Graham Greene’s “The End Of The Affair”, and his nocturnal walks in another, not too distant, London park during the blackout of The Blitz. There was something Greene-like about the quiet sense of order, the neat pathways and clipped back hedges of the park, which faced the large, authoritative faces of the expensive houses that bordered it.

It was a setting that awaited an event – a scream, a shot, running feet on the pavement, a hand on the shoulder. I turned off the music in my headphones.

Minutes later I walked back into the streetlights near Hanover Gate, and all such feelings subsided. I sped up and was home within 20 minutes, to a seat, a cup of tea and dinner plans. I quickly forgot the park feeling.

Until, leaving London three days later, I came across the picture above, which I’d taken on the lonely street of the Outer Circle. I elected to keep it, and write this piece, as a reminder that – even in the hyper-connected and hyper-surveilled heart of a 21st century city, there remain moments, stretches, of wonder and unease. We may never be quite as secure as we think we are.

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A dry Christmas in Ireland

“It’d be a great country if you could put a roof over it.”

This i the standard comment most Irish make about their home country, a place prone to a steady succession of “soft days” – ones filled with on-off drizzle, damp air and mostly-gray skies (and that’s just summer).

Which is why it’s somewhat unbelievable that we’ve spent the past 10 days here with barely a drop of rain. In December, too.

The result is that our visit, and Ireland itself, seems totally different. No more running across a park for cover from lashing rain showers, or catching cold because you didn’t get to that cover quickly enough. No damp children and irate adults, as they try to bring the small ones out and about in weather just slightly less predictable than a Bering Sea storm.

Instead we’ve been able to stroll – dry – through the Christmas shoppers in Wexford, or under the Christmas lights on Grafton Street. When staying close to Castletown House in Celbridge, I’ve managed to run around the grounds early each morning, not wet, not freezing.

Even the conversation’s changed. Anyone who has spent time in Ireland knows how much the locals obsessively talk about the weather – what we’ve had, what we’re having, what we’re going to have tomorrow (“showers” is a safe bet for all three).

With decent weather, what would we talk about, I wondered. Well, Brexit filled that gap.

And, of course, we caught up with friends and family, ate and drank in the spirit of the season, and unwound. A dry Christmas in Ireland was good for the soul, relaxing and sustaining.

We leave tomorrow, and I see that showers are forecast in the morning. Normal service is set to be resumed.

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Looking towards the Saltees

Salt-washed and swept
By huge winter westerlies,
The two islands sit
On the southern horizon.

They were a limit of the world
When I was a child.
Out of reach, almost out of sight,
To a boy standing on a December pier.

Open, uninhabited, they were all potential,
All light and movement.
Until another thought surfaces,
In the deepening afternoon light.

I wonder did they – unreachable – cross the mind of my great-grandfather,
As he drowned six miles west of here, in a blind fog, a century ago?
—–

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After “Aubade”

I wish that when I wake, at 4 a.m., it is to soundless dark, like Philip Larkin did.
But instead it’s snippets of songs, or random thoughts, that flit around my head.

Silence is never an issue, like this noise can be.
Leaving me to envy those who slumber peacefully.

—–

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The positives of sleeplessness

I envy our dog many things but – first and foremost – is her ability to sleep. Hadley, a miniature dachshund, can pitch down just about anywhere and nod off, at any time. 

For me, it’s the exact opposite. For years I’ve dealt, to a greater or lesser, degree, with insomnia. It’s far from chronic (I average about 5.5 hours a night, I’ve established – those of us with sleeping problems often record such details obsessively), but it’s ever-present.

Workdays, weekends, vacations – the schedule rarely wavers. A good night is sleep by midnight or 1 a.m. and waking between 5 and 6 a.m. A bad night is a lot less.

After 15 or so years of this – I’ve no idea what triggered it, back in my mid- 20s – I’ve grown accustomed to a regular shell-like feeling when dawn comes around, and the dread of staring down the day ahead, knowing that I’ll feel jetlagged (in a transatlantic way) throughout.

I was therefore interested to read recently the opinion of the late fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who believed that spending hours of the night and early morning awake could loosen creative juices. While I’ve certainly spent the early hours writing or editing, I can’t say I felt any more inspired – more like grateful for not wasting time trashing futilely around the bed.

But Aldiss’ belief prompted me to think of the positives of fractured sleep, and I came up with this list (which I’m tempted to print and pin above my bedside locker):

  • Peace and quiet. Little is stirring at 5 a.m. The world is asleep. This stillness is best enjoyed standing on the back deck with very early cup of coffee.
  • More hours in the day. Gordon Gekko-like, I can therefore get more done (of course, this doesn’t always pan out – sometimes I spend too long on the back deck, for a start).
  • A feeling of solidarity with my heroes. William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Franz Kafka, Philip Larkin, and others were all 4 a.m. floor pacers. Alas my scribbling is not quite at the same level. One can dream (if one could sleep.)
  • Imperviousness to jetlag. I’d like to say this is true all the time but alas it’s not. However, if schedules align, poor sleep in Oregon can dovetail to a perfect waking hour when we visit Ireland.
  • Cuddle time with a half-awake dog. If I’m awake, Hadley is often half-awake, and she’s usually in the mood for a snuggle at any hour. (Yes, she sleeps in our bed.) To be honest, this is insomnia’s true silver lining.

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