Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics : A Life in Music

‘We are all falling. See my hand: it bends.
And look at others: It’s in all their calling.
And yet there’s One, who’s holding all this falling
Endlessly tender in his upturned hands .. ‘.

(Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation Walter Aue)

‘ The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness … Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.’

(Anton Chekhov: letter to Alexi Suvorin May 30 1888)

Vocation: A person’s main occupation especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication. From the Latin, ‘Vocare’ – to call’

‘I still have to practice a lot. You have to keep yourself going and moving and then you are going to be looking for new things … You have to keep exploring and finding new shapes and new versions, new melodic ideas. Keep at it all the time.’

(Richard Thompson interviewed by Martin Chilton for The Daily Telegraph February 2013)

Richard Thompson’s latest CD, ‘Acoustic Classics’ is the hard won though lightly borne product of a career that has involved more than forty-five years of ceaselessly seeking to write, perform, record and renew songs that honour the call he has heard to tell stories through his pen, voice and guitar about the thrilling, tender, terrifying and tormented experiences humankind is heir to before that last breath.

‘Acoustic Classics’ contains no new songs yet it is one of the most vital creations of Thompson’s storied and stellar career. It displays his considerable gifts as an artist and can be listened by the casual listener or fellow practitioner as a kind of vade mecum or handbook of the craft of songwriting and acoustic guitar playing.

Given Thompson’s immersion in and importance as a musician within the tradition of British folk music the CD might otherwise be described as a wandering minstrel’s chapbook for the ages containing tales, ballads, jests and fables illuminating the victories, defeats, joys and betrayals of an everyday life that would in its emotional essentials have been as recognisable to Chaucer’s pilgrims as it is to today’s citizens of London, Sao Paolo, Sacramento or Sydney.

Thompson is rightly proud of his songs and one of the purposes of this set is surely through the deft drama of his virtuoso acoustic playing to demonstrate their immense contained spiritual and emotional power without the listener being overwhelmed by the head swirling Sturm und Drang he brings to the electric versions.

One of Thompson’s greatest attributes as a songwriter is his ability to find the right tone and language to describe the characters he presents and the situations they are confronted with. He does not suffer from the besetting sin of so many modern songwriters of wearily reproducing self analytical, fast fading xeroxes of their own emotional states.

He has consistently been able to imagine lives that he might have led, that he could never have led or would never have wanted to lead. He is interested as an observer and as an artist in the dramas of the human condition as expressed in the travails of our endlessly variable capacity to build and/or destroy our relationships with ourselves, each other and our god.

Thompson, as a religious man, is acutely aware of the inevitability of death. As a songwriter he understands that an essential element of the beauty and poignancy of our lives is their fragility. To celebrate life necessarily involves embracing death and relishing the intense pleasures of the moment. There is an affinity here with Thomas Hardy – a certain winter chill of the imagination, a sure consciousness that time has an unflinching rigour that must not be denied.

His reverence for British traditional music has instilled in him a desire to create songs that will last because they speak to the eternal truths of the human condition. Songs that will not be found wanting by the tests of performance and passing time.

Take the example of, ‘Wall Of Death’ which through a deliriously circular melody and lyrical celebration of the pleasures of the fairground slyly hymns the thrill of peering over the cliff edge of life at the unfathomable depths of dark death beyond. To do so feels, ‘the nearest to being free’ so it’s well worth taking your chances when it reminds you of the miracle of every breath. His guitar playing here is springily and increasingly propulsive brilliantly mimicing the dizzy carnival ride.

Thompson had a pronounced stutter as a boy and young man and it was through the guitar that he found a voice that could communicate to the world with a depth, complexity and fluidity denied to him in everyday speech. Throughout the CD his playing though sometimes displaying astonishing technical accomplishment never seems strained or flashy. He has an acute sense of what to play and what not to play. He plays what needs to be played to bring the songs to life.

Thompson’s gifts as a storyteller and witness to the lost and disregarded are given full rein in his wonderful song, ‘Galway to Graceland’ which has the added merit of also being an oblique tribute to Elvis Presley. The song tells the tale of a Galway woman who leaves her marriage and everything about the west coast of Ireland life behind to travel to Graceland in West Tennessee to be with the King. She keeps an obsessive vigil over Elvis’ grave confessing to him the hopes and dreams she has never told anyone else. For, in her mind, they are married (doesn’t she have his ring!) no matter what the world might say. Thompson in his vocal delivery and the balm of his beautifully paced and graceful guitar gives the character her full human respect and dignity so that tears spring to the eyes.

I have been in bars in Ireland where a floor singer sang that song and heard people singing along and yet when I asked them who wrote the song I was told that it was a, ‘traditional song’ which says something for Thompson’s ability to write within and yet extend the territorial reach of the folk song.

The same might be said for his truly classic composition, ‘The Dimming Of The Day’ which has the soothing cadences of a long lost lullaby from another age. I am confident this song will be sung as long as, ‘the moon pulls on the tide’ for it speaks to core human needs; the need to have a confidant, the need to have a hand to hold in the fast falling dark: which can sometimes seem so much more powerful than the light.

We all need to find someone who will recognise our better side. I always feel the lovely line, ‘When all the bonny birds have wheeled away’ is a tip of the hat to his fallen comrade from Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, whose own great sigh of a song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ opens with, ‘Across the evening sky all the birds are leaving’. Thompson’s guitar playing on this song has a taste and simplicity that only a considerable artist can achieve.

The CD sound is bright, close and clear having been expertly mixed and mastered by Simon Tassano. You feel as if you are right next to Thompson as his fleet fingers and plectrum coax golden shimmering notes from his guitar. If you are a guitar player you can try to play along and if you have a hundred years of intense study to spare you might yet match him! Throughout his guitar is an eloquent complementary voice to his vocals alternately driving or commenting sometimes obliquely, sometimes ironically, on the action and themes of the songs.

Thompson has chosen the songs to showcase here wisely. So we get the crowd pleasing brilliance of his performance of, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ bringing the motorcycle world of 1950s England to technicolour life not least in the description of the femme fatale of the song, ‘Red hair and black leather – my favourite colour scheme.’ You can almost smell the petrol fumes and be dazzled by the chrome as his guitar playing effortlessly exceeds the speed limit as he climbs Box Hill. Bob Dylan, who knows a thing or two about great songs, recently played this song in concert as a tribute to his fellow songsmith.

There are the songs like, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and, ‘Down Where The Drunkards Roll’ in which Thompson captures in a tender but clear eyed way the lives of the boorish and the outcasts trying to make it through another day. The latter song shows an awareness that those in the gutters might just see more of the stars than those who rush through a sober blinkered life. There are songs like, ‘Valerie’, ‘Persuasion’ and, ‘I Misunderstood’ that show how the promises of love can be fulfilled or wring with wrong the deceived and the deceivers hearts.

Thompson knows that many gamblers never draw a hand and that there are sailors aplenty who never leave dry land. He knows that life can be as breathtakingly beautiful but also as fragile as a Bees Wing.

His art is always aware that everyday we are walking on a wire and that sooner or later we will fall. His songs give us courage and heart as we cross.

Tracklist: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Walking On A Wire, Wall Of Death, Down Where The Drunkards Roll, One Door Opens, Persuasion,
1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I Misunderstood, From Galway To Graceland, Valerie, Shoot Out The Lights, Beeswing, When The Spell Is Broken, Dimming Of The Day.

This post dedicated to Mike Brosnan – no mean guitar player himself. In our bachelor days we spent many an evening marveling at Richard Thompson’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter while the Whiskey flowed.

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