I’m a lucky person when it comes to music. I was introduced to all sorts of sounds early in life, and never forced into a single narrow allegiance, except to quality. Some of the best listening experiences, it turns out, come when one thinks one has already heard THE definitive version, only to have it capped.
An example: the first time I heard a recording of the band Fairport Convention. I was 14, up in my friend Sheila’s room in Ithaca, New York, 1969. She had several records of the new British electric folk, recordings that included some of the marvelous ancient ballads that came to this country and took root in our mountains. But that afternoon, she put on the new Fairport Convention album Liege and Lief that included “Matty Groves,” which I thought I knew all about from the Joan Baez recording. Well! I didn’t know much. Amazing forthright singing by Sandy Denny of lyrics that varied somewhat from the version I’d heard–but it was the guitar, the muscular ringing guitar propelling and belling under the words that blew my mind. That was Richard Thompson. You can listen to that version here.
Last night, Richard Thompson, now 67, played like that, only more so. Alone on Carolina Performing Arts‘ Memorial Hall stage, he performed songs from all his decades of music-making, from the 1960s to the 2010s. He did not play “Matty Groves,” but otherwise it was a choice selection from 50+ years as a troubadour, 50 years during which he has continually strengthened and refined his crafts, and his songwriting art has grown like a wild grapevine, sending his songs through the voices of many of the era’s singers.
Thompson’s songs are marvelous, and marvelously unclassifiable, as has been said in many ways by many reviewers: trenchant, with poetical word choices and surprising phrasing–often dark, sometimes sad or bitter or nostalgic or just aghast; but there are just enough gorgeous bright ones to get by on. Don’t want the audience to expire of emotional overload. But the guitar! There was one man on the stage, with one instrument, but he made that box sound like five or six guitars at once. And separately: Thompson has a huge range of styles, all of which he is master. The driving force in the picking and sliding is irresistible.
Thompson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011, but it appears to have made no difference. His show has zero flash. He’s a workingman, a craftsman, and he stood stalwart for the long, unbroken set with three extensive encores, legs sturdy in blue jeans; muscles dancing below dark shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his trademark beret in place. Not a celebrity, not an entertainer, he was there to do a job of work, some of the best work there is, bringing music and stories to the people.
That he was at Carolina had to do with a professor named Florence Dore, who, as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this year, is working on a multi-part project called “Novel Sounds: American Fiction in the Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Thompson took part in a panel discussion today as part of it. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that there would be a reciprocity between storytelling in song and storytelling in novels, but there it is. And naturally the rhythms and tones of popular music infiltrate non-song writing, just as the ways of telling in novel and song influence each other. But Richard Thompson’s inclusion on the CPA schedule also fits with CPA’s admirable interest in older musicians, as well the new pathbreakers, and in presenting them these experienced artists in ways that make clear certain things one wants from art can come only from time spent living.
Thompson closed his last encore with “The Dimming of the Day.” Best version I ever heard–but we are both older now.