I Can’t Wake Up To Save My Life
On Wednesday I drove across Cheshire, through the fields and lanes of my childhood, to Gawsworth Hall, a Tudor half-timbered manor-house just south of Macclesfield. There, on the lawn below the rose garden, a stage and covered seating had been erected – an idyllic setting on a warm summer’s evening for a Richard Thompson gig.
Gawsworth Hall is the real thing: grade 1 listed Tudor black and white, one of the many that adorn the Cheshire countryside, telling of a wealth and confidence that persists in this corner of the north west. In 1999, Thompson released a portrait of suburbia called Mock Tudor, and at Gawsworth he sprinkled his set with three tunes from that album. He made no reference to this on stage, but knowing something of his dry sense of humour, I’m sure it wasn’t accidental.
I arrived in mid-afternoon so I had time to look around the house and gardens before the concert. The house is a home, lived in by Timothy and Elizabeth Richards and their two sons who, each summer, organise a season of theatre and music on a stage erected on their back lawn. Apparently, the Richards have been trying to book Richard Thompson for one of their summer shows for years, and only managed to do so this year at the last minute. Timothy gave a personal introduction to the concert, while later, as we filed out after the performance, Elizabeth wished everyone goodnight. Free parking was provided, and the catering was a family affair, too – delicious home-made cakes and excellent yet low-priced wine in the cafe.
Picnics on the lawn
Another sign of the Richards’ hospitality was the invitation to bring a picnic, and the lawn that stretches from the house down to the fishponds soon filled up with groups of picnickers, some having brought all the accoutrements – coolboxes, garden chairs and tables, even gazebos.
I spent some time exploring the grounds and looking around inside the house. There has been a manor house on this site since Norman times, when the de Orreby family built an earlier hall in 1130. The present house was built between 1480 and 1600 and owned by the Fitton family util 1662. Theirs is a story of vaunting ambition, followed by disgrace and bankruptcy.
Mary Fitton was the daughter of the third generation of the Fitton family to live here. She became a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and is reputed to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She certainly put herself about, having affairs with a succession of men at court, culminating in William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (perhaps the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets).
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
When she became pregnant with his child, Mary was ejected from Elizabeth’s court and sent home in disgrace. For the Fittons the scandal meant social ruin, though Mary did not seem as abashed, having affairs with several more men. She died in 1647 and is buried in Gawsworth. By the time of her death the Fittons were ruined financially, too. Before the scandal they had spent vast sums on their property in the hope of inducing a visit by Queen Elizabeth. It has been estimated that some £10 million in today’s money was spent on creating a lavish Elizabethan pleasure garden with five lakes, avenues of lime trees, and a a tilting ground for jousting.
The rose garden to the rear of the house
Leaving the house, its fine rooms and its history, I emerged into the afternoon sunshine to hear Richard Thompson starting his sound-check. Though we had been temporarily barred from the performance area I was able to enjoy a crystal-clear, note-perfect cover of ‘Going Back’, one of my favourite oldies. As the sound-check continued, I lay down in the sun with my own picnic, a glass of Rioja and Donna Tartt’s engrossing Goldfinch. Perfection.
I might try this in our back garden…
Soon, though, 7:30 rolled around and support band The Rails took to the stage. The Rails are a folk-rock duo comprising Thompson’s daughter Kamila and her husband James Walbourne, who is one hell of a guitarist. Kami is a fine singer whose voice at times held echoes of that of her mother, Linda. The pair played a mix of traditional and original songs off their first album Fair Warning that featured gorgeous harmonies (think Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris) and outstanding guitar by Walbourne. Nick Hornby once proclaimed that ‘Walbourne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart, and smack the gob, all at the same time’. So no reservations there.
There were tracks from the debut album like ‘Breakneck Speed’, ‘Panic Attack Blues’ and ‘Send Her to Holloway’ (described by Kami as ‘songs so icky, and potent, and heart wrenching, they could have been written 500 years or 10 minutes ago, it doesn’t matter’), but for me the highlights of the set were their first single ‘Bonnie Portmore’ and ‘Lonely (Left Me)’, a song from a forthcoming Thompson ‘family album’ that will feature Richard,Teddy, Kami, James and Kami’s mother Linda.
There’s a great video on the Clash magazine website of The Rails with a few friends on a recent pub crawl. Kami and James are joined by Ed Harcourt and Linda Thompson, performing in two traditional London pubs: Notting Hill’s The Cock & Bottle and Gospel Oak’s Southampton Arms. The video was filmed in two parts; part one can be seen now at: The Rails Head Out On A Pub Crawl. The second part will be premiered next week.
Richard Thompson: beret present and correct
The light was beginning to fade as swallows swooped and dived above the stage when Richard appeared, looking trim and dapper in the trademark military style black beret. He got down to business right away with a spirited account of ‘ Valerie’. Thompson is touring to promote his new album, Acoustic Classics, a selection of re-recorded favourites from his extensive back catalogue. On the album there are several tracks – like ‘Valerie’ – that first appeared in electric band versions. The new recordings retain much of the power and attack of the originals, despite being performed solo on acoustic guitar. That’s the brilliance of RT, revealed many times during the evening: he can generate as much dynamism from the strings of one guitar as can a roomful of musicians.
As much energy as a roomful of musicians
Thompson reprised a few of the classics from the new album – ‘Walking On A Wire’, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and ‘Persuasion’ – but, surprisingly perhaps, there was no ‘Beeswing’ or ‘Galway to Graceland’. Instead there were three songs from Mock Tudor – ‘Hope You Like the New Me’, ‘Bathsheba Smiles’ and ‘Dry My Tears and Move On’.
Thompson’s dry humour and acerbic wit were, as usual, much in evidence – both in the lyrics and in the repartee between numbers (an exchange with an over-excited female in the front row concerning talcum powder, and a put-down for another audience member who had cracked a joke: ‘why don’t you come back for Ken Dodd tomorrow night?’)
‘Johnny’s Far Away’ was introduced as a song about ‘what musicians get up to on the road, and what the spouses get up to at home’ – ‘a bit of a sea shanty’. ‘You have a sea shanty tradition here, don’t you, living so near the ocean?’ Then there was ‘Fergus Lang’, a bitter and twisted song about a developer called Fergus Lang, a thinly-disguised Donald Trump. It features the line, ‘Fergus Lang, he builds and builds/Yet short is his erection’, and another about Fergus Lang having a fine head of hair, ‘but only if the wind is blowing in the right direction’.
Thompson expressed his surprise at his new album being number 9 in the UK album charts (the first time he’s ever penetrated the top ten), and then, introducing ‘Good Things Happen to Bad People’, he observed that the song had been nominated for best song at last year’s Americana Awards. But had lost. ‘So, here: listen to a loser’. One song that is certainly no loser is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, in my view just possibly RT’s most accomplished song (though it’s a difficult call). There’s a new recording of it on Acoustic Classics, and he gave us a marvellous version at Gawsworth, decorated with filigree guitar work. Here’s a great account of the song, captured four years ago on YouTube:
‘I used to be in a band, you know. Paul McCartney used to be in a band, too’. Back in the sixties that was. Thompson noted that, looking at us, a mere 10% of the audience looked like they had missed the sixties. For them he sang ‘Genesis Hall, his song about a hippie squat in an abandoned hotel in London’s Drury Lane. Police evicted the squatters, and smashed up the building. At the time, Thompson’s father was a member of the London police force. The song, said Thompson, ‘tells you all you need to know about the sixties’:
My father he rides with your sheriffs
And I know he would never mean harm
But to see both sides of a quarrel
Is to judge without hate or love …
You take away homes from the homeless
And leave them to die in the cold
Another song that spoke to the experience of the generation making up the bulk of the audience was ‘Read About Love’, which perfectly captures the misinformation and confusion about sex experienced by those who grew up in the fifties:
Asked my daddy when I was thirteen
Daddy can you tell me what love really means?
His eyes went glassy, not a word was said
He poured another beer and his face turned red
Asked my mother, she acted the same
She never looked up, she seemed so ashamed
Asked my teacher, he reached for the cane
He said, don’t mention that subject again
So I read about love-read it in a magazine
Read about love – Cosmo and Seventeen
Read about love – In the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler
So I know what makes girls sigh
Thompson had obviously been absorbing Gawsworth’s Shakespearian connections, pulling from his 1000 Years of Popular Music project Frank Loesser’s 1940s hip-jive ‘Dog Eat Dog in Denmark’ in which Hamlet is reduced to a four-minute smile. As Thompson said, ‘You have to wonder whether Shakespeare overdid the padding. Was he being paid by the line?’
Hamlet was the prince of a spot called Denmark
There never was such a frantic guy either before or since
He was a dreamboy, and like a hole in the head Denmark needed that prince
He bumped off his uncle and he poisoned his mother
And he drove his girl to suicide and he stabbed her big brother
Cause he didn’t want nobody else but himself should live
He was what you might call uncooperative …
That was followed by a more sober interlude: three short pieces about World War 1 derived from letters home written by soldiers at the front. Thompson has set the words to music for a project commissioned by 14-18 NOW, due for completion in 2016 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. They sounded very much like a work in progress.
Towards the end of the concert Thompson invited ‘an old friend’ to join him on stage, and across the lawn came Christine Collister who served as a member of the Richard Thompson Band in the late 1980s, taking the part on many songs previously filled by Linda Thompson before the separation. Together, Collister and Thompson sang ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, followed by ‘Ghosts in the Wind’ from the 1992 album, Across a Crowded Room. Thompson’s shivering guitar and Collister’s vocals made this a tremendously atmospheric version of a song that conjures images of a building that shifts and creaks, as if stirred by the memories locked inside its walls (again, maybe, when drawing up the set list, Thompson was influenced by his surroundings):
Now this old house moves
This old house moves and moans
The tongues of the night
The tongues of the night stir my bones
I’m empty and cold
I’m empty and cold like a ruin
The wind tears through me
The wind tears through me like a ruin
Thompson and Collister next collaborated on a spine-tingling ‘Wall Of Death’ (there’s a YouTube video, made some time in the late eighties, of them doing the same number):
Finally, they were joined on stage by The Rails to perform another song from that forthcoming family album, called ‘That’s Enough’. Uncompromising lyrics about us ‘still falling for the same old lies’ echoed across leafy, plush, comfortable Cheshire as a thousand voices were urged to join the chorus: ‘Times are tough …that’s enough’.
Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics tour poster