There may be no one quite so singularly unqualified to present a show assaying 1,000 Years of Popular Music as Richard Thompson. Sure, he's got the musical scholarship, chops, savvy, emotional depth and wit to cut a swath from 13th century rounds through Henry Purcell, Gilbert & Sullivan, Hoagy Carmichael, Prince's "Kiss" and points beyond. The problem is that many other musicians' tallies of the best music of the past millennium would necessarily include 10 or 12 of Thompson's songs, while he is too much of a gentleman to put any of his own in the program. This man is selling you second-rate goods!
Sure, his rendition of the 1800's sailor's lament "Shenandoah" conveys such a beautiful ache of dispossessed longing that it seems to encapsulate the human condition. His stark take on the Britney Spears' staple "Oops! I Did It Again" makes you realize that—as tales of callous romantic experimentation go—it's a damn good song. Then there's his unabashedly joyous version of the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long," which suggests there's still an upside to being alive.
These are but trifles, however, compared to the trove of vital, revealing songs Thompson has himself penned over the last 33rd of the old millennium. He's made a good claim on the new one as well, with his splendific 2003 album The Old Kit Bag (subtitled "Unguents, Fig Leaves and Tourniquets for the Soul"), several self-released live and archival albums (available on his spiffy website www.richardthompson-music.com), and doubtless will make as worthy a follow-up with the tunes on a solo acoustic album he's recording right now in his Santa Monica home.
"It seemed absolutely inappropriate to me to include my own songs in the show," Thompson insists. "What do I say, 'Just to remind you of how great I am, here's a few of mine! Here's my place in history!' It didn't seem right."
The 1,000 Years show Thompson's bringing to the Irvine Barclay is hardly his first flirtation with antiquity. In the 1960s, he was a founding member of Fairport Convention, whose take on folk-rock differed from the American version in that they had so much more folk to rock: great heaving centuries of it. As much as he sometimes enjoys tossing a Jerry Lee Lewis song into his encores, his idea of a '50s song could as easily mean the 1650s.
So when Thompson was approached by Playboy five years ago to give them a list of the 10 best songs of the millennium, he decided "to call their bluff" and actually include songs with the dust of ages on them. Playboynever ran his list, but the experience set him on the path of putting this show together, which he's performed at the Getty Museum and similar dives before touring with it now.
"Aficionados of the 17th century have been complaining that there's not much from there, but I think we've remedied that somewhat. It's one of those things where so many people have had suggestions that you have to say, 'Well, do your own 1,000 year show,' you know. Obviously mine is not a true reflection of 1,000 years of songs—it's just ones I like. It's also ones that we can do as a trio, and sometimes it's the irony of reducing Gilbert & Sullivan to an acoustic guitar and bit of percussion that makes it work. It's just what we can get away with," he said.
He's accompanied on the tour by the splendid singer Judith Owen (wife of fellow Santa Monican Harry Shearer) and percussionist Debra Dobkin, previously with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and others.
In assembling the songs for the show, Thompson was struck by "how much things haven't changed. A love song's still a love song. The old virtues of three chords are as good now as they were in 1,000 AD. And you find how much stuff has been forgotten, that there have been quite interesting ways of saying the same things that people say now. Humanity hasn't changed that much but sometimes the expression is different, and as fashion moves, some good ideas get thrown out with the bathwater of time."
Love, cheating, divorce, war, finance, drink, death: it's all there, including "Blackleg Miner," a song that originated with striking coal miners, advocating the murder of scabs.
Asked about the current backlash against artist with opinions, Thompson replied, "Music has always been political. And sometimes music has been suppressed for that reason. I think if you've got something to say politically then you say it. Occasionally you have to call the despots by name and spark the revolution, but most of the time I think the subtle approach works best. If I went to a concert, I'm not sure I would want someone else's political ideas rammed down my throat, unless I knew that going in."
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Thompson is nothing if not subtle in song, and he only opined here on the nation's current bit of mess after
"Well, things look pretty bad to me. This is one of the worst governments that has probably ever been in the United States in terms of dishonesty and incompetence. Since World War II, America rarely has had forays around the world that have done its reputation or position any good. It's taken a very short-sighted and just wrong kind of approach, and certainly Iraq was the same mistake, and totally the wrong response to 9/11, I thought."
Perhaps there will be some good songs about the quagmire that musicians can dredge up 100 years from now. In the meantime, Thompson will soon be releasing a live CD of his old songs that fans have been bugging him to do, and is trying to complete his home-recorded solo acoustic album. It will be out next year, he says, "if they'll stop making so much noise next door. They're tearing the house down and it's unbelievably noisy."
Richard Thompson and 1,000 years of popular music at the Irvine Barclay theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646. www.thebarclay.org wed., 8 pm. $35. All ages.