Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

by Harry on July 22, 2014

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets — I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act — lovely voice, ok songs — so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written — though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA — plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too? — the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.



marcel 07.22.14 at 4:01 pm

Not exactly on topic, but the best version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” that I’ve heard (and I have to admit, I’ve heard no more than 10, a very small fraction of what’s out there … is The Mammals’: the banjo (clawhammer if I am not mistaken) makes it even more spectacular.


godoggo 07.22.14 at 4:15 pm

He played Al Bowlly when I saw him 2 weeks ago.

OK, no proof that I was there, but still.


David 07.22.14 at 4:43 pm

Best version of ‘Beeswing’? Not for my money – phrasing minutely but crucially off to my ears. Try the one on Two Letter Words (though not for the slurry Samuel Veller pronunciation).


harry b 07.22.14 at 5:50 pm

Oh, he played it, but under protest — and then played it brilliantly.


nick s 07.22.14 at 7:07 pm

I took my dad to see him a while back, partly because my dad had seen Fairport in the late 60s, when Thompson was perhaps 18 at the oldest.

I’ve seen him many times, in many configurations: solo sets, band sets, him with Danny Thompson on bass, the silly, gorgeous treat that is ‘1000 Years of Popular Music’. It’s churlish to think of the band sets as second-class, because the band albums always generate songs that evolve though both band and solo performance into part of the canon, but sometimes you can’t help thinking it.


harry b 07.22.14 at 7:20 pm

I had the slightly odd experience, about 26 years ago, of sitting next to him on a shuttle at LAX, for quite a long time. (Obviously?) no-one else knew who he was. In the end, I asked for his autograph, which is in the front of my copy of C.B. MacPherson’s Possessive Individualism book. Later that night, I went to see Clive Gregson and Christine Collister in Oakland (they were part of his band at the time), and they signed underneath. If I’d known he was playing for a cricket team in LA I’d have asked to join. (No, I wouldn’t, I barely had the nerve to acknowledge that I knew who he was).


ben w 07.22.14 at 7:59 pm

Bah! Bah, I say. Give me “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” or “Dimming of the Day” over “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” any day.

I like this performance by Teddy.


eric 07.22.14 at 9:27 pm

Thanks for the link to the new acoustic album. Indeed I like RT best in an acoustic setting. Almost 20 years ago I saw him with Dany Thompson. (With a nod to @harry b) Christine Collister was support and provided some great backing vocals. I’m not a great fan of his son but “Persuasion” performed by the the two together is one of my alltime favourites.


Main Street Muse 07.22.14 at 10:23 pm

I love love love 1952 Vincent Black Lightening (takes me back to a very fond memory.) And I sometimes use it in class to discuss arrangement and the use of vivid details.


roy belmont 07.22.14 at 11:17 pm

Henry the Human Fly or whatever his name is, ever since Book Song on early (US) FC album, has been right up there in a kind of Pantheon, one that shifts and morphs and changes utterly now and again, but I’ve been keeping an eye, and ear, on that boy for decades.Not the most carefully updated one though.
I was in a music store in Santa Cruz, Ca, buying some strings, fiddling with guitars. There was a guy there, I thought he was Australian, the shopkeepers were all over him, fawningly obsequious yadayada, but he was cool, they handed him some high dollar Martin, and he riffed a little thing in F&C. When I looked up from watching his fret hand… like I knew that he was watching me watch his chording, some shared thing, a little moment. Two guys who cared more about the sound than anything else, and how are you making that sound, anyway.
Just another Australian guy at the music store.
Later, on the way home, I saw a promo for his gig that night at some local venue.
The first twenty or so times I listened to Bee’s Wing I was unashamedly moved to tears. Manly, restrained tears, mind you.
Now it’s just deeply satisfying and soul-confirming.


emmryss 07.23.14 at 2:44 am

But has anyone ever seen him without the beret?


Chris Bertram 07.23.14 at 6:49 am

We’re going to see him tonight in Bath!

(emmryss: sure, lots of old Fairport Convention photos, when he was young.)


godoggo 07.23.14 at 7:29 am


chris y 07.23.14 at 9:53 am

Aggers made up for Boycott’s lack of manners by introducing Thompson to Shane Warne, who gave him some tips on bowling wrist spin.


dporpentine 07.23.14 at 10:56 am

God–what ludicrously fake music.

I wish I’d been alive in the bad old days, when professors’ terrible musical tastes were their private shames–the public ones limited to asides about Scriabin or somebody like that.

At least Paul Krugman’s emo bullshit obsession is vaguely cute and evidence of a desire to be contemporary. This is a sign of a deep conservatism (in addition to musical ignorance, etc.).


harry b 07.23.14 at 11:46 am

dporpentine evidently thinks that even Boycott needs lessons in how to be rude.


Matt 07.23.14 at 12:39 pm

But has anyone ever seen him without the beret?

The first time I saw him (I think) was onthis great old show full of interesting music unknown to a person growing up in Idaho. No beret, early 90’s, I think:

Also no beret on this appearance on David Letterman, from around the same time

Thanks for pointing out the new release, Harry- I’ve just ordered it and am waiting eagerly for getting it tomorrow.


godoggo 07.23.14 at 1:32 pm

That was such a massively douchebaggy comment that I just had to google… Holy cow, look at all the crap!!! Anyway, dporpentine on Maria Schneider: “I don’t know the rest of her work, but the sample used for this article, “Walking by Flashlight,” is schmaltz–a beautifully sung mid-Disney-movie imitation of the opening section of Knoxville, Summer 1915′ that’s not dimly recognizable as serious jazz.”

Dude, just shut up.


godoggo 07.23.14 at 1:51 pm

Sorry, I got annoyed.


dsquared 07.23.14 at 6:09 pm

Is there some way in which we could make #15 a “sticky” comment? Someone who makes such a fool of themselves in such an arseholish manner shouldn’t be allowed to forget it just because the post has dropped off the front page. Maybe we could make it so his name always shows up as “dporpentine who said Richard Thompson was ludicrously fake music”.


godoggo 07.23.14 at 8:04 pm

I actually do regret going a bit overboard in my response. But anyway, regarding the “conservative” thing, I actually first heard of him in the 80s because he was involved in some projects with experimental musicians i.e French Frith Kaiser Thompson and the Golden Palominos (even if the results ended up being more conventional than you’d expect). And there are some very not conservative renditions of Shoot Out The Lights on youtube. But personally I really became a fan after picking up a cassette of Rumour and Sigh in a shop in Tunghai on a whim.


godoggo 07.23.14 at 8:08 pm

Sorry, Taichung.


Main Street Muse 07.23.14 at 8:13 pm

One can only wonder what kind of music dporpentine finds “authentic.”


Widmerpool 07.23.14 at 8:29 pm

Back in the 198os, a sibling of mine treated my now-wife and me to a Kennedy Center concert featuring Richard Thompson, Nanci Griffith, the Roches, BeauSoleil, and Taj Mahal. Possibly another female folkie I’ve forgotten. I had an inkling of how great this was, but really no idea I’d probably never see a comparable lineup in such an intimate setting again. I don’t know if I’ve properly thanked my brother, come to think of it.


Chris Bertram 07.23.14 at 10:25 pm

Excellent performance tonight in very hot conditions …. Started with Bathsheba Smiles and played most of the hits (as he sometimes jokes).


bad Jim 07.24.14 at 2:15 am

I’ve only seen him two or three times, but I’ve been a fan for forty years. My father cracked up on hearing “Mary and Joseph” from “Henry the Human Fly”, I’m not sure why. I had the impression he recognized the tune.

Even though I have a comprehensive if no longer up-to-date collection on disc within arm’s reach, I mostly enjoy him on YouTube, because, hey, live versions, and I get to see how it’s done.

A few years back I spent a couple of evenings at Hootananny in Inverness (great ale!) and the performers included a few Thompson songs. Even though they don’t actually belong to the traditional genre, they fit.


brewmn 07.24.14 at 3:30 am

He played “Al Bowlly” when I saw him in Chicago in mid-June also.


mrearl 07.24.14 at 6:08 pm

I don’t recall a beret in the mid-Nineties either. What arrested me the first time was that Vincent BL ’52 didn’t require two guitarists. I could summon only two words: Holy shit!


rea 07.24.14 at 7:43 pm

Wtf is “fake music” anyway? Has Thompson found some way to stimulate the vestibulocochlear nerve without actually make sound?


godoggo 07.24.14 at 8:17 pm

Looked at the songlist for Acoustic Classics. Me I would have included God Loves a Drunk and Crazyman Michael.


Matt 07.25.14 at 12:06 am

Listening right now to the new disk (“Acoustic Classics”) that Henry linked to, I’m struck by how Thompson is really the rare case who just got better and better with age- he hasn’t lost his voice, like so many singers. If anything, it’s richer and more interesting now. He’s more handsome than he was in the past- while, frankly, he used to be slightly weird looking, he really is a pretty handsome man now, I’d say. And of course, his musical abilities are as good as ever. It’s unfair, really, unless we consider it a sort of reward for having made so much good stuff without ever having achieved as much renown as merit would call for.


harry b 07.25.14 at 12:32 am

I agree with Matt…. another case is, well… Mickey Dolenz. I just saw The Monkees (I’ll do a post on that too, maybe) and he is really astounding.


Teachable Mo' 07.25.14 at 2:49 am

Richard Thompson, 2 sons, and John Sebastian play “The Price of Love”

wobbly cheap camera, decent sound


godoggo 07.25.14 at 3:11 am

Not all that rare outside of rock. Roy Haynes is an example.


Matt 07.25.14 at 3:34 am

I will be interested to see the piece on Dolenz/ The Monkees!

To me, the genius of Thompson is almost never expressed more clearly than on the looks of the faces of Suzanne Vega and Louden Wainwright (who is obviously bringing up the tail of this show if you watch more of it) in this video, here:

I like lots of Vega’s work, but it’s hard to imagine looks that more obviously say, “yes, I am clearly out of my league here” than those show in this clip.


NMissC 07.25.14 at 10:24 pm

I’ll have to dissent from those who prefer purely acoustic sets. I saw a short essentially power-trio set last year, and have liked the mixed sets best over many years of seeing him, although an acoustic set with David Byrne may have been my favorite. Thompson is a startlingly original electric guitarist.

As far as Al Bowly goes, I have the sense that he often rotates songs out of regular play and replaces them– e.g. “Calvary Cross,” which I have wanted to hear live for decades, got replaced by “Shoot Out the Lights.”


godoggo 07.26.14 at 1:28 am

Agree on his electric playing. And his current trio has an amazingly kickass rock’n’roll drummer, which helps a lot.


David 07.28.14 at 7:38 am

At WOMAD he played ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ (“I used to be in a band…”) which I haven’t heard from him before. Song as well as singer better with age.

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