In a few years, when Richard Thompson gets voted into the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame, a lot of people are going to look up from their newspapers with puzzled looks. Richard who?
Among critics, it's a commonplace that Thompson is one of rock's "best-kept secrets," a figure who serves as a classic example of pop music's prevalent disjunction between artistic achievement and commercial success. The 41-year-old Englishman never has come close to having a hit--unless you count the success that Jo-El Sonnier had on the country charts a couple of years ago with a version of Thompson's "Tear-Stained Letter." And yet, when it comes to all-around accomplishment as a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, Thompson ranks as one of the finest, most versatile talents rock has seen.
Thompson's first band, Fairport Convention, emerged in 1968 as a British parallel to the Byrds and the Band. Stoked with talent, including the great female singer, Sandy Denny, Fairport dipped gleefully into American music forms ranging from rockabilly to Cajun. It also paid homage to Bob Dylan with fine covers of such obscure gems as "Million Dollar Bash" and "Percy's Song." But Fairport's prime distinction was its fusion of British and Celtic folk music with rock. A mere teen-ager through most of his Fairport tenure, Thompson left the band in 1971, having made his mark as the author of songs like "Meet on the Ledge," a 1968 tune of inexpressible beauty, philosophy and depth of feeling.
Thompson's subsequent career has delivered in full on Fairport's early promise--first in a partnership with his wife, Linda, and then, after that relationship disintegrated during a 1982 U.S. tour, in a series of almost uniformly excellent solo albums. Last year, when Rolling Stone magazine published a list of the 100 best albums of the previous 20 years, it included two by Richard & Linda Thompson: "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," from 1974, and "Shoot Out the Lights," from 1982. Thompson's two most recent solo works, "Daring Adventures" and "Amnesia," show no sign of diminished inspiration.
As a guitarist, Thompson has the ability to paint emotions--he's especially grand in dark, churning, dissonant electric passages that can be uncomfortably vivid in their evocation of anger and madness. As a songwriter, Thompson has the gift of narrative and characterization that can elevate a song into a short story.
He isn't an easy talent to pin down: Thompson's repertoire includes romping traditional reels, songs in which he uses his deep, resonant balladeer's voice to convey lovelorn anguish beyond the point of tears, and humorous rockers with a satiric bent. Over the past few years, he has kept varied company, anchoring an album collaboration with avant-garde rockers Henry Kaiser, Fred Frith and John French, teaming with Pere Ubu's David Thomas, and contributing guitar solos to an album by the Golden Palominos.
Like Neil Young (one of his few peers when it comes to achievement both as a singer-songwriter and a guitarist), Thompson is capable of putting on fine electric shows with a full band, or holding forth with just an acoustic guitar, as he will this time around. Orange County's charming folk-country-classical trio, Tuxedo Cowboy, will open for Thompson at the Coach House.
Richard Thompson and Tuxedo Cowboy.
Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 8 p.m.
Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Take the San Juan Creek Road exit off Interstate 5, then left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is on the right, in the Esplanade center.
Where to call