Richard Thompson is an institution in British music, and unusually, that institution spans a number of genres; folk blues, and rock. He is a guitarist’s guitarist, and has been a pillar of the British music scene for decades.
He is spoken of with wonder and awe, his name oft whispered with reverence and a little fear, save the guitar gods detect any hint of blasphemy and wreak revenge most foul on the blasphemer!
And yet, and yet… I have on many occasions had a bit of an issue with Thompson. With some notable exceptions – Waltzing’s For Dreamers from the 1988 album Amnesia foremost among them – his vocal delivery, both in terms of articulation and melody, often seems to my ears to be a little too spiky, a fraction too angular, a soupcon too edgy for my tastes and sensibilities.
Don’t get me wrong, his songwriting has always been exceptional and entirely beyond criticism! And when he takes on a folk standard, he makes it his own and demands that the listener hears it afresh, making even the most overused standards seem somehow current and relevant – true artistry for any folk singer!
And yet, and yet… I often find myself warming more to some of the covers of his songs than to the originals themselves. And there have been many, many covers. Apart from Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, there can be few artists with more recorded covers in the past 40 years.
And then there’s The Dimming Of The Day. The original recording featured Linda Thompson on the lead vocals, with Richard providing harmonies. It’s a truly seminal, blissfully magnificent recording. The purity and soul of Linda Thompson’s voice is a perfect match for what is surely the benchmark in beautiful ethereal folk ballads.
It’s been covered by everyone who’s anyone over the years – versions by Bonnie Raitt and Alison Krauss stand out (as does the recording by Dave Gilmour, although for entirely different reasons – not recommended listening for fans of either Thompson or Gilmour).
But Richard Thompson’s own solo recordings of that song? Erm…. nah! not for me, thanks.
So when his new Acoustic Rarities album dropped on my desk, featuring a mix of tracks written by Thompson, and either previously unreleased, or originally recorded on earlier albums by Thompson, Fairport Convention or with Linda Thompson, or recorded by other artists, I was excited and apprehensive in equal measure.
I’m happy to report that on balance, I find this collection a great deal more pleasing than I was expecting to. Track after track reminds me why it’s impossible not to come back to Thompson’s writing again and again. The intimacy of an acoustic collection, without the clamour of a full band, engages and sustains interest and appreciation throughout. He is a simply magnificent guitarist, one of the very few that occupy the highest pedestals in world music, and who, similarly to the likes of Martin Simpson, wraps his arrangements into the very fabric of the songs to bring them to life in ways of which the rest of us mere mortal guitarists can only dream.
Thompson is touring at the moment with a solo show. If you see it, don’t let him leave the stage without playing They Tore The Hippodrome Down. It is, for me, the standout track of this collection. Which is saying something, given the company it keeps here.
In the end, I’m not sure whether Thompson is mellowing slightly in his advancing years, or whether I am in mine. Either way, I am delighted that he and I can find common, slightly smoother, less abrasive ground on this excellent album.
Acoustic rarities was released by Beeswing Records on October 6th