Tag Archives: Richard Thompson

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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It’s not you Richard, it’s me

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

There is a moment at a Richard Thompson show when his guitar-playing virtuosity can put the listener into a trance.

Time is suspended, seconds becoming hours, all of which hang on a raised note, the spell broken only when the melody is resolved. It’s heady stuff – up to a point.

Thompson played more than one furious solo during his show at Vicar Street in Dublin last Tuesday. As he tore through a stomping Hard On Me I found myself strangely transfixed, one part of my brain following the notes, another part thinking ‘where did I put the gas bill?’

Is this something that affects the musician? While most treat a two-hour Richard Thompson set as 120 minutes in the presence of a maestro, does the maestro ever find himself drifting away as he fires off another note-perfect rendition of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning?

One of the most common complaints people make about their jobs is repetition – the tedium of the same tasks the same way, workday after workday. Why should it be any different if you’re one of the top 20 guitarists of all time, whose performances make grown men sigh?

Most of us will change jobs in our lives but rock musicians – of certain stature – can find themselves damned to playing the same songs over and over, for decades. As Thompson commented – after playing Fairport Convention’s Genesis Hall – “that was from 1969” – I thought, ‘you must be a bit tired of it at this stage’.

Perhaps such songs are new every time, with a tempo change, a different venue, a bigger audience, the mutable factors that nudge the original just enough to keep it interesting.

It’s difficult to know what Thompson, whose stage manner is one of acerbic politeness, makes of it. Unlike some of his generation (Bob Dylan, who I’ve heard mangle plenty of songs over the years) the English folk-rocker seems content to mostly stick to the blueprint.

And what a blueprint. The Vicar Street set list included Wall of Death, Shoot Out The Lights and a poignant Al Bowlly’s In Heaven; the show ended with Tear-Stained Letter.

The songs and the technique couldn’t be faulted. The virtuosity was spellbinding. And if I worked through my household chores or audience-watched during a couple of the solos, well, my loss.

Perhaps it wasn’t you Richard, it was me.

A performance to make grown men sigh.

Solos to make grown men sigh

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You play it, I’ll hum it (and hum it, and hum it)

Not so fast Elvis... Dodging earworms.

Not so fast Mr Costello.

It struck at 3.40am last Wednesday. Waking briefly in the middle of the night I lay in bed as it looped around my head.

Twenty four hours later it hit again, this time in the middle of a morning run.

After I returned from my jog it pestered me in the shower.

Later that day, walking down a flight of stairs at work, it sprang up, maddeningly.

He’s a Battered Old Bird 
And he’s living up there 
There’s a place where time stands still 
If you keep taking those little pink pills…

The words are from a not-very-well-known Elvis Costello song, Battered Old Bird. The tune torments me.

I’m vigilant about it, though. On the occasions that I listen to Blood and Chocolate, the album on which Battered Old Bird features, I rush to hit the skip button as soon as the song preceding it begins to wind down.

Last week it popped up on shuffle and somehow caught me unawares. This led to 48 or more hours of the chorus erupting every time my brain dropped into ‘stall’ mode: while eating, washing the dishes, tying my shoelaces, putting out the bin.

After two days I managed to dislodge it.

'God, no...not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!' 'The Scream'. Edvard Munch. Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

‘God, no…not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!’
‘The Scream’. Edvard Munch.
Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

How? By listening to the only other melody which burrows even deeper into my short term auditory memory, an infuriating Richard Thompson tune.

And so the process began again.

So it is with earworms – otherwise know as stuck song syndrome (or, it you’re being clinical, ‘musical imagery repetition’).

Some 98pc of us encounter them (and three quarters of our earworms are songs with lyrics – perhaps I should listen to more classical and jazz).

Edgar Allan Poe was writing about them back in 1845, their length is usually between 15 and 30 seconds, and two proven methods of stopping them are reading a good novel and completing a moderately-difficult anagram.

So prevalent are they that two researchers (for whom I have a great deal of sympathy) endeavoured in 2012 to find the most common earworm in the UK. It turned out to be Queen’s We Will Rock You (go on, hum it, I dare you).

This led, in an act of research likely precipitate insanity in the coming 48 hours, to my considering my personal top five earworms.

Here they are, the songs I will never play, the tunes that drive me from stores or coffee shops within four bars, the numbers that could see the radio silenced, possibly permanently, against a wall.

Deep breath…

5. The Clancy Brothers, Finnegan’s Wake

4. Pete Seeger: Guantanamero (or anyone’s version, really)

3. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

2. Richard Thompson: Let It Blow

1. And, finally, Battered Old Bird. Really, listen to this one at your peril

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