I parked the car only a few hundred yards from the Floral Pavilion on the river front at New Brighton last night, but it might just as well have been a mile. Pummelled by gusts of wind off the Irish Sea, the rain was incessant. By the time I reached the foyer, I was drenched, like most of the rest here for Richard Thompson’s solo acoustic show. It was worth the wetting: he turned in just about the best performance of his I’ve seen.
There was a time, back in the 1980s, when I shared my enthusiasm for Richard Thompson’s dazzling songwriting and guitar skills with a Geordie fiddle-playing work colleague. We’d swap C90s (I’d tape Thompson’s regular live sessions on the Andy Kershaw show) and turn up at RT gigs in Liverpool, or anywhere else he played in the northwest.
Though garlanded with awards (an OBE, the Orville H Gibson award for best acoustic guitar player, an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting), Thompson is a national treasure overlooked in his homeland. Perhaps it’s because this Londoner whose dad was a Scot buggered off to live in L.A. In the States, his ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ remains the most requested song on National Public Radio: I bet if you went out in the street here and asked people for their favourite RT song, you’d get a lot of blank looks.
But he does have a cult following, and they adore him, roaring their approval when he walks on stage at the Floral Pavilion, and subjecting the maestro to frequent affectionate heckling and song requests. The trademark black beret in place, he begins with a new song from a forthcoming album, ‘Northern Girls’, with a chorus that reveals that Thompson hasn’t lost his acerbic outlook on the cruelties of love: ‘northern winds will cut you, northern girls will gut you, like a fish upon the slab’. When the song is done someone yells, ‘good start’. ‘Yeah, it’s all downhill from here’, Thompson growls in response.
The set includes two more new numbers: ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People’ which has the same distinctive Thompson edge (‘you were smiling, you must have been running around; I know you’ve been bad from the way that you smile’), and the gentler, romantic ‘Saving The Good Stuff For You’.
Have I made it clear that this was Richard Thompson solo and acoustic? The last time I saw him, at least a decade ago, was in Manchester, blasting his way through a ferocious electric set. Last night he seemed to make as much noise, but solely on an acoustic guitar. His technique is incomparable; I don’t know enough to be able to say exactly what it is he does or how he does it, but somehow Thompson manages to play bass and rhythm at the same time as picking out the melody and throwing in some plucked punctuation for decorative effect. On a night like this, he has no need of a band behind him.
There were several favourites that I hoped Thompson would play, and adding to the enjoyment of this concert was the fact that he included many of them in the set. ‘Beeswing’ came early on: it’s one of RT’s brilliant character sketches and narrative songs in the traditional ballad form in which the narrator tells of meeting a free spirited girl in a steam laundry on Cauldrum Street, Dundee, in 1967:
Brown hair zig-zag around her face and a look of half-surprise
Like a fox caught in the headlights, there was animal in her eyes
Throughout the song, the sense of time and place in a narrative that spans decades is sketched crisply and evocatively:
I was nineteen when I came to town
They called in the Summer of Love
They were burning babies, burning flags
The hawks against the doves
But it’s the vivid portrayal of the central character – wild and tough, but ‘fine as a beeswing’ that enthralls and lingers long after the song is over:
We busked around the market towns and picked fruit down in Kent
And we could tinker lamps and pots and knives wherever we went
And I said that we might settle down, get a few acres dug
Fire burning in the hearth and babies on the rug
She said “Oh man, you foolish man, it surely sounds like hell.
You might be lord of half the world, you’ll not own me as well”
As the song draws to a close, years have passed and the narrator hears that she is sleeping rough, ‘White Horse in her hip pocket and a wolfhound at her feet’:
They say her flower is faded now, hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse
Another constant favourite in the same form is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’. In this I’m not alone – it’s called for at every Thompson gig, and he usually obliges. There was a roar of approval last night when he began to play the distinctive opening notes. Again, it’s a brilliant re-interpretation of the Celtic ballad form in a modern setting, with a re-imagined gypsy who gathers up the girl (Red Molly – ‘red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme‘) on his steed – only in this case the steed and the hero of the verse is a modern technological marvel – a motorbike of great beauty and rarity (only 31 Black Lightnings were ever made – the last of them in 1952). Thompson once explained in an interview:
That’s the song that starts with an object. I was trying to come up with—you know, American songwriters have it so easy. You just mention a Cadillac, and you’ve got half a song title. Do you know what I mean? Mention a town—well, obviously not Scranton, New Jersey, but if you mention Abilene or something, that’s half a song title. And ‘Abilene Cadillac’, that’s a whole song title. I can hear the song right now! But if you come from Britain, it’s harder, because the place names aren’t as romantic. They don’t have the association with popular song that American place names do. And objects aren’t as romantic, because they haven’t been used in songs over the years and don’t have that kind of reverberation in people’s minds. So I was trying to come up with kind of an object that would have some romance to it. And the Black Lightning motorcycle was that object.
I was really surprised when Thompson came up with a song that originated back in the 1980s: I still have a recording of a live performance on the Andy Kershaw programme. But ‘Pharoah’, a song written during the years of Thatcher recession and the ‘Big Bang’ that freed City bankers and speculators to make millions and begin the process of deepening inequality, sounds even more pertinent now. Thompson introduced it as a ‘conspiracy song’, and when he asked how many of us believed in such a thing, seemed startled by the resulting blast of approval.
Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel
The dogs of money all at his heel
Magicians cry “Oh truth! Oh real!”
We’re all working for the Pharaoh
Call it England, you call it Spain
Egypt rules with a whip and chain
Moses free my people again
We’re all working for the Pharaoh
Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel
Around his feet the princes kneel
Far beneath we shoulder the wheel
We’re all working for the Pharaoh
This is Thompson in a recent performance of ‘Pharaoh’ on 14 August 2012 at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh:
Another pleasant surprise was Thompson’s take on Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. Earlier this month, he said, he’d performed at the Copredy Festival in Oxfordshire – the annual Fairport Convention reunion. He’d been staggered to realise that this one marked 45 years since the band had first got together. He was only 18 when he began playing with the newly formed Fairport Convention, and it had been his guitar playing that caught the ear of producer Joe Boyd:
There was this group of very nice Muswell Hill grammar school boys and a girl playing American music. Leonard Cohen songs, and Richard Farina songs, and Bob Dylan songs, all being done in a kind of West-Coasty rock style. And then came the guitar solo, and Richard just played the most amazing solo. He played a solo which quotes from Django, from Charlie Christian, you know, an incredibly sophisticated little solo. And that really amazed me, the breadth of his sophistication… and so, you know, at the end of the gig I was in the dressing room saying ‘would you guys like to make a record?’
As Fairport’s lineup and their sound evolved, Thompson continued to grow in stature, both as a player and as a songwriter with compositions like ‘Meet On The Ledge’, ‘Genesis Hall’ and ‘Crazy Man Michael’ (the latter performed last night as an encore request). In January 1971 Thompson announced that he was leaving Fairport Convention. ‘Musical differences, you know’, he said last night.
A new song to me was ‘Johnny’s Far Away’ which RT introduced as a ‘cruise song’, and appropriate on a night like this: ‘If this westerly keeps on blowing, we’ll all be out on the ocean’. The song’s main character is a member of a Ceilidh band, the Drones (!), hired to perform on an ocean cruise. This, as he explained, is something about which Thompson has gained some experience recently, having been signed up for a ‘singer-songwriter’ cruise (Actually, the 2011 Cayamo Cruise, billed as a ‘journey through song’, which sailed around the islands of the Eastern Caribbean with a line-up that included John Prine, Steve Earle, and the Indigo Girls. Thompson later admitted that he he’d enjoyed the experience once he had got over ‘the mild Las Vegas-ness and Disney-ness of the environment, and the fact that you’re on a floating city, burning shitloads of marine diesel’.
In actual fact the song is not about cruises, but is another of RT’s many songs about infidelity:
The Drones are signed up on a cruise
While Tracey’s laying in the booze back home
She’s got herself another man, a smoothie
While the kids are in the front room watching movies
She’s got him in a head lock, in an arm lock, in a jam
She says, I can’t express myself with my old man [..]
Johnny’s cruising out to sea
And he believes in chastity – for some
The wealthy widows bill and coo
He fends off one or two, and then succumbs
As they’re turning hard-a-port in the Bahamas
He’s turning her right out of her pyjamas
He’s turned her every which way to the rhythm of the sea
He says, I can’t express myself with my old lady
Another old favourite turned up last night – ‘Waltzing’s For Dreamers’, one of Thompson’s archetypal sad songs:
Oh play me a blue song and fade down the light
I’m sad as a proud man can be sad tonight
Just let me dream on, oh just let me sway
While the sweet violins and the saxophones play
‘It’s fun to sing sad songs’, he has said. ‘And it’s fun to listen to sad songs’.
There plenty, too, of those psychodramas that RT is famous for. He’s said in the past that, ‘People want to hear about the extremes of human nature. They want things that are larger than their own lives, and more romantic, and not necessarily of their own experiences’. ‘She Twists The Knife Again’, ‘Crawl Back (Under My Stone)’ and the classic ‘Cold Kisses’ were all on offer last night, the latter song capturing a moment frozen in time with cinematic vividness:
Here I am in your room going through your stuff
Said you’d be gone five minutes, that’s time enough
Here in your drawer there’s lacy things
Old credit cards and beads and bangles and rings
Well I think I’ve found what I’m looking for
Hidden away at the back of the drawer
Here’s the life that you led before
Old photographs of the life you led
Arm in arm with Mr X Y and Z
Old boyfriends big and small
Got to see how I measure up to them all…
Thompson spoke about his songwriting technique in an interview for American Songwriter:
Every song really tells a story. Some are more fleshed out than others. Some are more linear than others. But most pop songs, apart from pretty basic dance music, is telling some kind of a story—usually a love story, sometimes a political story. In modern songwriting there is a lot of cinematic technique, where you jump into the middle of action. You might be writing in first person through the eyes of the protagonist. It’s a little cinematic scene, and you do hard cuts. And some more is left to the imagination. I do a lot of that in addition to the narrative songs, and I enjoy both. I’m surprised by how popular the ballads are, the story songs. So in a sense, I’m reacting to what the audience would like.
‘Now for some culture’, said Thompson, introducing ‘Dog Eat Dog in Denmark’, a 1940s song by Frank Loesser, the American songwriter who wrote the lyrics and music to Broadway hits such as Guys and Dolls. Written in 1940s hipster jive (‘Are you familiar with hipster jive? Yes, of course, I might have known New Brighton would be the place.’), the song distils Hamlet into three and a half minutes – either demonstrating Loesser’s summarising skill, or, remarked RT with a glint in his eye, the amount of padding there is in Shakespeare.
He came back three times for encores, and faced a barrage of yelled audience requests. He seemed quite staggered by how many were for ‘the depressing ones … real wrist slashers’. But he obliged with ‘Cold Kisses’, then went back to the Fairport days for ‘Crazy Man Michael’, before closing with Stick McGhee’s rousing 1949 opus, ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O’, one of the songs he included in his epic 1000 Years of Popular Music.
The Floral Pavilion dates back to the days when New Brighton was a popular holiday resort. Originating in 1913 as an open-air summer theatre in Victoria Gardens, in 1925 it was covered by an iron and glass roof. The theatre closed in 2007 and was demolished as part of the town’s £60 million Neptune redevelopment plan. The building was rebuilt to a new design and reopened in December 2008. A stunning feature of the new building is the Panoramic Lounge on the first floor, where I went during the interval. With floor to ceiling windows on three sides, the view – out to sea, and back down the Mersey – must be one of the best on Merseyside. From this elevated position you gain a real sense of the form of the coastline, and how the river meets the sea.
Richard Thompson was preceded on stage by Diana Jones, the singer-songwriter whose family roots are in eastern Tennessee (something she only discovered as an adult, having been adopted and brought up in New York). Her austere songwriting style and spare vocals have been drawing critical acclaim since the release of her first album in 2006.
It wasn’t until her late 20s, when she located her birth family in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee, that Jones’ deep affinity for Anglo-Celtic traditional music began to make sense. Meeting her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, proved to be a life-changing epiphany:
He was a guitar player from Knoxville, Tennessee, who played with Chet Atkins in the early days. He told me that if he had died, his one regret would have been never to have known the granddaughter who was given away. He took me driving ’round the Appalachians, reintroducing me to where I came from. And whenever these old-time country tunes came on the radio, he’d be singing along — he knew all the words. This ancient mountain music was completely in his blood and, I suddenly came to realize, in mine, too.
Last night Diana Jones performed a short set that included two of her most acclaimed songs: ‘Pony’ and ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words’. The latter song was inspired after she had visited a museum and read a last letter written by miner Henry Russell to his wife. On 30 April, 1927, an explosion ripped through the mine in Everettville, West Virginia. The explosion, the subsequent fire, and gas in the mine killed 111 men. Knowing he would die as the gas slowly asphyxiated him, Henry Russell used a piece of coal and wrote a letter to his wife Mary on a cement bag in the last three hours of his life. Jones turned his exact words into a moving song:
‘Pony’ is a song told from the viewpoint of a young Native American girl in the 1920s who is forced to assimilate to a life and culture that is not her own when she is taken from her family to be ‘re-educated’ at a white school. The song begins as ten years have passed since the girl’s removal from her home, and sadness permeates every syllable
When they signed the papers
they didn’t think I knew
Didn’t know I understood
what they were told to do
By some white man that came by
the reservation one night
My daddy called me Pony
He loved me, I know
We went riding in the snow…
I’ve been in the state school
for ten years or so
the teachers do their rounds
and they are mostly kind you know
but the language ain’t the same
they cut my hair and changed my name
Richard Thompson set list (not necessarily in the right order)
- Northern Girls
- Good Things Happen to Bad People
- Saving The Good Stuff For You
- Johnny’s Far Away
- Who Knows Where the Time Goes
- Waltzing’s For Dreamers
- I Feel So Good
- 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
- Crawl Back (Under My Stone)
- She Twists The Knife Again
- Wall of Death
- Dog Eat Dog in Denmark
- Queen of Cooksferry
- Down Where the Drunkards Roll
- Cold Kisses
- Crazy Man Michael
- Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O
Richard Thompson: Solitary Life (BBC 4, documentary, 2003, narrated by John Peel)
This is the first of 7 parts making up the complete programme, available on YouTube: