One day, I think it was in the late 1980s, I was walking down London’s depressingly commercial Oxford Street and suffering from exposure to the garish blend of unforgiving gloss and inhuman shallowness that seemed an echo of the reigning prime minister of the time. No doubt, my subconscious, in turn, was trying to keep me connected to some substance in human reality. As a result, I found myself singing Richard Thompson songs under my breath, since they are often haunting and consummate creations that one likes to keep on call.
When I looked ahead, – and I claim no magical powers of conjuration in having caused what ensued- it was Thompson himself walking toward me. “I was just singing your songs in the socks department of Marks & Spenser,” I exclaimed, laughing in surprise. He took this unusual exclamation of celebratory appreciation in stride, we chatted, and each continued walking. I’ve seen his live performances maybe seven times since then.
Thompson’s recent concert at Koerner Hall at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto was a four encore, four standing ovations gig that proved immensely satisfying and genuinely memorable on several counts. The guitar playing, first of all, featured his expected trademarks –breathtaking speed in the service of musical purpose, a sustained alternating bass undercurrent, and imaginative exploration of contrapuntal patterns.
His left hand touches included double pull offs, string-bending on multiple strings, extended runs of surprising construction, and discretion in the placement of vibrato, all with an accumulative breathtaking effect. Moreover, Thompson endlessly explored tonal values, dynamics of sound, counter rhythms, assertive muted strings, and seemingly endless sustains in the treble regions. As an experience of musical atmospheres alone, this concert was unforgettable. This was not only superb guitar-playing; it was rich orchestration on six strings of an amplified acoustic guitar.
As a singer Thompson effectively employed an assertive thrust in delivery, as if he was hurling the harsh realities of human existence back into the complacent lives of those who might otherwise pass by, unaffected by them. Sometimes he seemed to spit out his lyrics, as if to rid himself of the toxins that acknowledgment of the world’s true nature brings. On the other hand, he was also capable of gentle and poignant understatement, more as an acknowledgement of human vulnerability than anything sentimental
Thompson also proved once again a refreshing entertainer, dry and wry in wit, almost impish in manner, quick to respond to his audience, sharp as a razor. He seemed to gently laugh at himself, and by implication at us, with affection. “Anyone in the audience have a capo?” he asked. “Or else everything else is going to be in D.” He seemed able to place the high regard felt for him in context, seemed always bemused, seemed aware of larger stakes in this world.
Thompson offered twenty songs at the Koerner Hall, including encores, that ranged over his entire career, from the groundbreaking and genre-setting Fairport Convention of the sixties to his recent Dream Attic CD set. He began with “When the Spell is Broken” which contains the line “Love letters you wrote are pushed back down your throat,” moved on to the wistful and poetically evocative Waltzing for Dreamers, and then to Valerie, a male suffering from women’s ways song that reminds one of Brel enduring the same fate.
Thompson’s imagery can be blunt –“Northern girls will leave you empty….like a fish on a slab”- or humanly resolved as in Wall of Death” or quietly desperate as in the classic “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” from his days with then wife Linda. In any case, he offered an open-eyed consideration of the abrasive world where people meet one another, wound one another, and then move on. Whatever the lyric’s subject, each song seemed to denote an intensely felt life. His humour at times seemed like Samuel Beckett with a beat.
You’ll often read that Richard Thompson was ranked not too long ago as number 19 in a Rolling Stone survey of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Of course, such need and tendency to make creativity in the arts a competitive sport is an asinine exercise. Why? Because Thompson, as far as I can tell from several meetings with him and from gladly following his career, is a man of artistic humility, genuine spiritual inclination, realistic human perspective, and talent of integrity that sets its own standards and wants to know how it can further improve itself.
I suspect that Thompson’s too good at what he does to be a superstar in a culture that too often lives by marketing alone and craves “idols” no matter how hollow they are at the centre. Thompson is a master at his multi-aspected craft and an artist of complex singularity in his creative life. He cares too much about what he does not to be the best he can be.
As such, Richard Thompson is genuinely unique, quite simply so damn good, and far beyond more popular artists who are masters of angst and poetic diarrhea and amplified catering to the masses. Thompson makes “one of a kind” a designation of honour among creators.