Richard Thompson

Gee whiz, but hes good

If your radio were working, you'd hear Richard Thompson on it. What's broken isn't an easily remedied matter of capacitors and speaker coils, though, but a moribund corporate monopoly that only plays "product" dull and calculated enough to be songs from Amortizing, the Musical.

Jeez, it's boring just talking about it, so let's instead address that sparkling object of radio's neglect, Thompson's 1999 album Mock Tudor, which was easily one of the five best albums of the past decade, and I don't much care what the other four were.

It is an axiom around the Washburn hacienda that there is as much talent about now as during the '60s or any other golden age, but the vast difference is that excellence and daring used to be recognized, rewarded and broadcast, so there was a chain reaction of others being excited and challenged by it.

Though few had a chance to notice, Thompson went to all the bother of making Mock Tudor as soulful, literate, tuneful, visceral and fervently rocking a disc as anyone has heard since 1982's Shoot Out the Lights, which he also made and which critics back then had the good sense to name the best rock record practically ever. Thompson's career goes back yet farther, to when he was a teen in the late 1960s and was a founding member of Fairport Convention, inventing the British version of folk-rock, with the big difference from American folk-rock being that they had all those big-ass British centuries of folk music from which to draw their material.

Sorry, but once the Thompson superlatives start flowing, they can't be stanched: his lyrics blend elements of dark wit, social commentary, Sufi poetry and a battered romanticism. Plugged in with a band, he's the most adventurous and downright frightening guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, with whom the teenaged Thompson jammed in London; solo on acoustic guitar, he's like a spell-weaving bard of old. And, as if all this weren't enough, he remodels kitchens.

"It's quite fun, that, and I've put a porch in as well," he said by phone from a Milwaukee hotel room, though he wisely reserves his carpentry for when he's at home in Southern California.

His show at the Irvine Barclay Saturday will be one of his solo ones, which he enjoys equally with his band performances, though they're decidedly different experiences.

"I suppose the mindset for a band show is more that you overpower the audience. That sounds rather totalitarian, doesn't it?" he said, with a chuckle that makes one wonder if maybe it's a good thing that he's not more successful. "It's nice to be able to have the band and play the electric guitar and take extravagant, self-indulgent solos. Performing alone and acoustic, it's much more a matter of drawing the audience into the performance and songs.

"I've got a bunch of new ones, which I'm rotating to not overwhelm the audience with 30 new songs. I'll do four or six. We try to give excellent value."

Thompson recently parted company with Capitol Records, his label since the late '80s, and isn't pursuing another major label deal, saying, "I don't think they do it for me at this point."

He probably had more to say on the subject, but I am possibly the world's worst Thompson interviewer, so anxious to agree completely with him that I tend to interrupt whatever he's saying. Later in the interview, when I was distracted by the cat or the war on terrorism or something, he did manage to get this in:

"Corporations have taken over the music business and probably for all the wrong reasons, where they are really concerned about money and not much else. The record companies no longer see themselves as an umbrella for a variety of styles of music, so it's the consumer that suffers. Ultimately, something will come along to fill that vacuum, whether it's satellite radio or a more street-friendly kind of record company. But things will change."

As suggested by his 30-song backlog, he's not sitting on his haunches until that day arrives. He has both a band album and an acoustic one (the latter tentatively titled Front Parlour Ballads) in the works, as well as an album of children's songs that he says is "mostly funny-slash-educational stuff for kids, a heavily coated pill." Next year, he plans to record an album of Islamic music with fellow avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser.

Thompson converted to Sufism in the 1970s and lived in a rustic Sufi commune for a time. He has written no dearth of songs critical of the materialism and shallowness of Western culture. Following Sept. 11, though, he penned "The Outside of the Inside," which he calls "a kind of Taliban's-eye view of the West, which makes it a defense of Western civilizations, really. I think that as Westerners, we're often critics of the Western system and governments to the point that we overlook the achievements."

Some of the lyrics:

Van Gogh, Botticelli, Scraping paint onto a board, Color is the fuel of madness, That's no way to praise the Lord, Gray's the color of the pious, Knelt upon the misericord . . . Oh, I'm familiar with the cover, I don't need to read the book, I police the world of action, Inside's where I never look.

Thompson is able to lead a normal life, grouting his kitchen and coaching his son's soccer team, but he also has a disproportionate number of avid fans, some of whose devotion veers toward worship. There's no counting the number of websites devoted to him these days. While Thompson once struck me as being justifiably guarded about his private life and his craft, he cooperated in an exceptionally revealing and excellent biography a few years back (Richard Thompsonby Patrick Humphries, Schirmer Books), and these days, he has taken to fielding fans' questions directly on the Internet (presently at people.zeelandnet.nl/flipfeij/index.html, though he promises to have his own site up sometime before 2025). He's even weighed in on the question of whether he wears boxers or briefs. I know you need to know, so his response, in part: "Leading an active life, I find I need a little more restraint for the old tackle, so I plump for the brief, the longer-legged version."

"I'm not necessarily telling the truth," he cautioned on the phone. "There's a part of me that wishes I'd never said one single solitary word on any subject publicly. Then I could have been the tortured poet, and there's so much mileage in that. But it's too late to stop now. And if I do press interviews, it would seem churlish not to do Internet interviews for the people who care directly about music. On the whole, I'm gratified that they're so supportive, understanding and interested in the music. There are a few people who crave life details, and I'm happy to deflect those as much as possible."

As the world turns ever nuttier, does Thompson feel artists have some role to play in sorting things out for people?

"I don't particularly know if we're supposed to sort things out," he says. "As an artist, I think you have a job to reflect society, what people are thinking, and what they are nearly thinking. The last one is the most important—to get slightly underneath people's consciousness, to those unexpressed thoughts."

Richard Thompson performs at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646. Sat., 8 p.m. $27-$33. All ages.
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