I suppose I must be the archetypical Richard Thompson follower. A few years back I caught him at a festival appearance where he pronounced that the audience was like ‘looking out at a sea of Terry Pratchets’ Grey hair, grey beard and enough disposable income to afford tickets for Thompsons 70th birthday celebration at the Albert Hall (plus hotel fees and a meal beforehand), I am Thompson’s demographic.
Holding any party is always tricky, the Band started the career celebration trend with ‘The Last Waltz’ and soon found an additional problem, namely the bigger the names of your friends the more your own career is likely to be overshadowed. And so we remember Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan or Neils Young and Diamond rather than the Bands excellent versions of their own songs from that night(s). Also,the Band were still in their youth, Thompson is 70, I am 10 years younger and find just standing up with a guitar round my neck exhausting after 30 minutes. Thompson is made of sterner stuff but there’s three hours of music to get through and occasionally he will need a break.
Another issue is that even in this day and age a gig can go wrong for reasons beyond the performer’s control. Amazingly Thompson falls prey to gremlins from the first number. During the opening number ‘The Storm Wont Come’ which he performs with his excellent trio it becomes apparent that his guitar is seriously underpowered. In the 70’s a nervous roadie with a hammer would scuttle across the stage but the techs here are more officious, striding out unhurried and straight backed, one of them calmly appraises the problem and does some knob twiddling and plods off again. Despite a couple of attempts at this the guitar gets a bit louder but not a lot clearer. Thompson has been described as someone who sounds like he’s singing with a bucket over his head and his vocals don’t really cut though that well especially when he makes announcements‘please welcome to the stage marincerfy’ he will announce leaving the audience mouthing ‘who? ‘ at each other. The official compare, his youngest son I am guessing, compensates for lack of microphone technique with youthful enthusiasm but is sometime down to the audience to work out who is on stage.
But enough griping, tonight is a friends and family occasion, it seems churlish to be too critical. I was eagerly anticipating the person who turned out to be the first guest. Hugh Cornwell was in Thompson’s first ever band, I had hoped he would play bass but the Thompson trio backed them through a pretty robust version of ‘Tobacco Road’. Things then went a bit strange (already!) with a version of the Stranglers ‘Peaches’ a pretty sexist song which hasn’t worn well which was followed by a pleasant but unessential Cornwall solo tune.
With Cornwell ushered off Thompson unleashes the biggest disappointment of the evening. Simon Nichol is stuck in Greece! A jugband cover with Ashley Hutchings and a stand in guitarist could have been a real moment if Fairport founder Nichol had been on board. Ditto a cover of Jack O Diamonds from the first Fairport album is also diluted a bit by the presence of Dave Mattacks on drums who plays as if he’s in a pit orchestra. Dave Pegg’s on stage (on mandolin and vocals) for ‘Down Where the Drunkards Roll’. I later realise that nothing from the folky Fairport was played all night, this was as close as it got.
It’s a bit of a relief when Bob Mould (ex Husker du and Sugar) turns up and wacks his Strat up to full volume for ‘Turning of the Tide’ , the hall is crackling with energy thanks to Michael Jerome being back on drums, it’s a bit of a mess but so exciting its worth Mould doing a quick solo number,while we’re in the mood.
The last stage of the first half is folk heavy with Kate Rusby, Martin Carthy, Marry Waterson and Eliza Carthy, the latter dressed like a Wagner Heroine producing a jaw dropping unaccompanied ‘Great Valerio’. On the family theme the mad uncle arrives in the shape of Marc Ellington. I know virtually nothing of the man (I think he sung on Unhalfbricking) but he treated the Albert Hall as if he was doing a turn at a family party. With boundless confidence he led us through ‘The Bonnie lass o’ Fyvie’ before disappearing back into obscurity.
A half time break (necessary at our age) gives me a chance to check out the audience, not all old codgers. I catch a glimpse of someone who if she isn’t Bonnie Rait has chosen to dress just like her. I assume it’s the latter as she didn’t appear on stage.
The second half opens with Beeswing which is played with concertina player Alistair Anderson. Another pleasant surprise there will be no ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ so this is the nearest we have to an acoustic theme song. Anderson stays on for a duel on the Morris tune Madame Bonapart where they both overplay and the tune starts to unravel in places. There will be a similar episode when the band back ‘Cry Me a River’ with ‘Judiwowan ‘(Judith Owen) where everyone appears to be playing a slightly different song. Before that Teddy Thompson appears for a pretty good version of persuasion (no bucket on the head for Teddy).
It then gets a bit dull and downbeat with Danny Thompson and Mattacks for a couple of songs before a switch of players and the introduction of Olivia Chaney for the sacred ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. Chaney is one of the very few contemporary singer songwriters who really moves me, I thought she was great as was her subsequent solo ‘House on the Hill’, I hope I wasn’t the only one.
Next up is Maddy Prior, still with scarf despite it being about 90 degrees by now, her voice isn’t exactly cutting through as it might do but ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ is a pleasant return to a giant folk club vibe. The subsequent act are the Rails who, of course, include Thompson’s daughter Kami. Unfortunately for Richard, her partner James Walbourne does rather show what an electric guitar could sound like. Their version of ‘Keep your Distance’ literally crackles with electricity.
The presence of another Thompson onstage gives Kami a change to introduce her mother, the elephant in the theatre that is Linda Thompson. Her ex husband doesn’t really acknowledge her or utter her name. The Thompson clan perform ‘That’s Enough’ . It’s off their pretty underwhelming album that I’ve forgotten the name of but as a standalone song it’s pretty poignant in these pre Brexit post truth times following which Linda is escorted away by Teddy after, it seems ,having had a great time onstage.
Following the jazz battle of ‘Cry Me a River’ there’s the much heralded appearance of Derek Smalls. While I’m a bit fan of Shearer’s acting/voiceover talents we like the idea of Derek Smalls much better than the reality, one song was one song to many.
In contrast Loudon Wainwight is relaxed, natural and totally marvellous. The ‘Swimming Song’ is an obvious crowd pleaser but rather charming, more surprising is a duet with Thompson on ‘I want to see the Bright Light Tonight’ which sees the reappearance of Mattacks who now seems to want to groove instead of tap at cymbals. I didn’t miss the brass band at all.
Quite what Dave Gilmour is doing here is a small mystery (if Thompson really did describe Pink Floyd as ‘a blues band with clocks’ its genius). He’s clearly important and so is last on the bill and was featured heavily in Rolling Stone’s review of the gig. Again, Gilmour’s guitar sounds better than Thompsons, his voice is limited but that’s rather touching on ‘dimming of the day’ where he cracks on the high notes. Stranger is the final song proper ‘Fat Old Sun’, an autumnal song by Gilmour, its quite beautiful but rather down beat, Thompson gets to play some great guitar but it’s a bit like serving drinks at your own party.
That’s not exactly the end there’s the anthemic song about death ‘Meet on the Ledge’(he was in his early 20’s when he wrote that) before the lights are up and we shuffle out into the light drizzle.
For anyone new to Thompson’s work and trying to get a handle on what he is/about would have found this a baffling night. He was impressive in that he avoided some greatest hits show, some of the time he was offstage or providing back up to someone else’s song. When it was a bit dull it wasn’t dull for long, when it was great it was wonderful.
Which pretty much sums up Thompson’s career really.