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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Lyric Hammersmith, London, Tuesday 23nd August 2005  by Nick Morgan
I’ve got a nice book on my desk – it’s a sort of ‘Richard Thompson meets Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day’. I bought it a few years ago, and excitedly sat down, guitar in hand, to try and work my way through the first tune, ‘Banish misfortune’ a traditional Irish double jig (technical eh?). I reckoned after an hour or more that I’d made a pretty decent fist of it, not least as the neighbours hadn’t started banging on the wall. It was at that point that a CD fell from the book’s rear cover.

As I played it the blinkers of self deception fell from my eyes (and ears), for there was Richard Thompson himself, bashing out a version of the tune that sounded nothing like the unfortunate mess I’d just made of it. But that’s what happens when a mere mortal pits himself against a genius. And whilst I know Serge gets uncomfortable with this reverential stuff (“no Nick, my Whiskyfun readers aren’t interested in the music, they just like the jokes”) I put it on record now that Mr Thompson, in terms of both his writing and guitar playing is close to being Genius Number One. And he scores satisfyingly high on the Eccentric to Bonkers scale too.
That’s why we’re sitting in the delightfully restored late nineteenth century Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith (cf. ‘Frank Matcham's, famous ornate fin-de-siecle gilt and velvet auditorium’), - a suitable venue for one who clearly has a deep affinity with the British music-hall tradition, even if the theatre is artfully camouflaged by a hideous and soulless concrete shopping centre.

It’s quite a blokish audience, many of them with the trademark West London linen jacket, jeans and open necked casual shirt look, that yells ‘Chelsea and Fulham 4X4 Brigade’. But I can put up with them for one night, especially when it’s Richard Thompson promoting his new album Front Parlour Ballads with a solo concert. Well that’s what it said on the ticket. But it turns out (to our delight) that ‘solo’ includes the very singular Danny Thompson, best known I suppose for his time with Pentangle, John Martyn, and more recently playing bass on the Blind Boys of Alabama’s outstanding Spirit of the Century album.
Thompson and Thompson have been touring and recording together for over ten years – on stage they nag and argue like an old married couple, but as far as the music is concerned they have a deep and silent understanding – each knows what the other will play and when – they are, to be frank, more like Siamese twins, joined at the hip, than Mr and Mrs.
Did I mention that they are both converts to Islam? Oh yes, and as for that new album stuff, well it does get an apologetic mention once or twice (“You’re wasting your time Richard”, yells one wag in the stalls, “we’ve all already bought it”) but we actually only get a handful of songs from it, ‘For whose sake’, ‘Let it blow’, ‘Old Thames side’ (which I think must have been written in the hope that Dick Gaughan would cover it) , and the deeply sinister ‘When we were boys at school’.
Which takes me onto another subject. Thompson (Richard) seems like a really nice bloke – he gives us an improvised weather report when asked by an obvious Cropredy veteran “will it rain Richard?”, beginning “well not in here”; tells a few football jokes, larks around with his missus Danny, and totally plays the fool singing ‘Hots for the smarts’ (“Here’s one for all you clever girls out there – you know who you are”) – but the bleak and stark bitterness that informs so many of his narrative songs suggests he might have the sort of dark side that most of us would do well to avoid, better off taking a vicarious tour through the songs instead. But then I thought, maybe he just sees the dark side in all of us, as he knowingly explores the sordid dreams (‘I feel so good’) and secrets (Johnny’s far away’) of suburbia’s bedroom drawers. Because if you don’t know by now, Thompson writes and sings obsessively about the English suburban landscape in which he was brought up, and from which he obviously never quite escaped, despite the fact that he lives in California (where it never rains). Think front parlours and mock Tudor architecture. “I just want to be middle class …I just want to be free’ proclaims the aspiring social climber of ‘Crawl back’.
Hang on – enough of the purple prose. It’s a fantastic night. He plays an amplified acoustic in a bewildering array of tunings, and goes easy on the pedals. And I’m reminded that he’s not afraid to hit the occasional bum note when he improvises around his often discordant melodies (on that bloody tuition CD – which is now an ashtray by the way – I seem to remember that he says about half way through, “well, at this point you just make it up really” – helpful or what?). And that of course is one of the ideas behind Front Parlour Ballads, recorded in his garage, warts and all. He only forgets the words to a couple of songs, and of course performs That motorbike song solo, and this time gets it right.
In addition to the new songs we go back to his collaboration with ex wife Linda for songs such as ‘Hokey Pokey’ and ‘A heart needs a home’, for which he is joined on vocals by (a somewhat nervous) daughter Kamila, who also sings on ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Keep your distance’.
From his more recent work ‘King of Bohemia’, a very forceful ‘Outside of the inside’ (“this is a fundamentalist’s theme song which I wrote after 9/11. I don’t like fundamentalists”), ‘Mingus eyes’ ‘Al Bowley’ (no Jon, not a music hall bish-bash, but a fierce anti-war song) and then finally ‘Wall of death’, a great finish, and it seemed to me at the time, a wonderful epitaph for us all – “Let me ride on the wall of death one more time …this is the nearest thing to being alive”.
Complaints? Well it would have been nice to hear Thompson work his way through the new album as we missed out a lot of great material. But apart from that it’s hard to fault. Danny Thompson’s bass playing was quite exquisite, and Thompson delivered top bananas on both guitar and vocals. Sorry Serge, this one was a 97 point five star hit. - Nick Morgan (concert photos by Kate)

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