Richard Thompson, 1000 Years of Popular Music (Beesweb,
Richard Thompson Band, Ducknapped (Beesweb, 2003)
Editors note: This review is a joint effort from Master Reviewers Gary Whitehouse and David Kidney.
Richard Thompson is one of the most bootlegged artists operating today. In fact, one of my favourite of his albums, which I originally thought was a foreign import, turned out to be a bootleg. I bought it in a record store. It had good graphics, was sealed in cellophane, and an Italian logo on the back...but one or two of the songs were listed under the wrong titles. It was odd, but I put it down to a problem with the translation. The music was impeccably recorded, wonderfully performed. I discovered later that it had in fact been recorded by Thompson's own sound man, Tom Dube, for a 'possible' release; but since it was bootlegged that release was abandoned. That is just one story. There are hundreds of Thompson concerts on silver and blue discs out there, not to mention old cassettes languishing in shoeboxes and under car seats.
To counter thiswidespread theft of his music, Richard Thompson had an idea. He would continue to put out official product, that is new releases of new songs; but also he would, from time to time, issue unofficial [but authorized] live recordings. Over the years several of these semi-official, non-commercial releases have appeared. Some are great, some just interesting. With the birth of his official web site, Beesweb www.richardthompson-music.com the number of these releases has grown dramatically and quickly. SpinART recently issued the new official album The Old Kit Bag, and Beesweb followed with 1000 Years of Popular Music, More Guitar, and now Ducknapped.
1000 Years came first and had perhaps the most interesting genesis. The way Thompson tells it, he was among a number of musicians asked by Playboy magazine to contribute their lists of "the best songs of the millennium," back when the magical "Y2K" was approaching. Figuring the magazine really meant "the past 50 years" or so, Thompson decided to take them at their word and work up an actual list of the best popular songs from the past 1,000 years. Needless to say, they didn't publish his list. Rejection gave the versatile singer/songwriter the germ of an idea -- to put together a concert featuring some of these songs. It was first presented at the Getty Center in Los Angeles early in 2001, and again during a five-night stand in New York in July 2002. This CD is taken from the New York performances.
1000 Years is Thompson in a rarely heard configuration, a trio: himself on vocals and guitar, Michael Jerome (from the Mock Tudor tour and Kit Bag recording sessions) on drums and percussion, and Judith Owen on vocals. It gives him an opportunity to do one of the things he does best -- accompany himself on solo acoustic guitar -- while having the advantage of a rhythm section and an occasional backing vocalist to lend some variety to the sonic palette. It works beautifully.
The selections run more or less chronologically, from "Sumer is Icumen In," a 13th-century round, through Renaissance dances like "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo," American and English folk songs like "Shenandoah" and "Blackleg Miner," English dance hall fare like "Waiting at the Church" and "Trafalgar Square," through jazz, American musicals, rockabilly, rock and funk.
Highlights include his stirring rendition of "Shenandoah," with expressive fingerpicking and moving vocals; the venomous "Blackleg Miner," another entry in RT's canon of labor songs; a hilariously over-the-top duet with Owen on "There is Beauty..." from Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado; Owen's solo turn on "Cry Me a River;" and RT's rollicking takes on "Drinking Wine Spo-dee-o-dee" and The Who's "Legal Matter." But the track that really takes the cake is his sardonic, minor-key cover of "Oops! I Did it Again." That's right, the Britney Spears mega-hit from a few years back. As he says in the liner notes, "Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song." To hear Richard Thompson thundering out "Oooh, baby baby" and "I'm not that innocent" is worth the price of the record alone. This was a highlight of the edited "1000 Years" portion of Thompson's 2002 solo shows as well!
Ducknapped was titled such after a large stuffed duck which served as a tour mascot disappeared one night, apparently held for ransom. The story appears on Thompson's site. The cover of the CD shows pictures of the poor creature bound with heavy yellow cord, and wanted posters of the usual suspects. Pete Zorn, who plays guitar, horns, mandolin and flute; Earl Harvin, the drummer; Danny Thompson (no relation) Richard's long-time bassist; and Rory McFarlane who took Danny T.'s spot for the American part of the tour. Christine Collister and Judith Owen guest on backing vocals, although no suspicion is cast their way concerning the 'crime,' their photos do not appear in this package.
Ducknapped is fresh, recorded as The Old Kit Bag was just finding a place in the market, from seven live shows in the UK in March, and two in the US in May, 2003. The band was honing the songs that had been laid down in the studio. Only Danny Thompson, and Richard himself were part of the recordings (and Owen on backing vocals) but still, familiarity and regular playing brings an edge to songs which may not be present in the studio, the nature of recording, layering, and polishing being what it is.
Nine of the twelve songs from TOKB are repeated here, in slightly more muscular versions, fleshed out with the addition of Zorn's multi-instrumentals. Ducknapped also features a few older standards ("Bank Vault in Heaven," "Valerie," "Can't Win," "Missie Now You Let Me Down,"and "I Misunderstood). "Missie..." (from '86's Daring Adventures) offers Pete Zorn's mandolin stylings. As always Richard Thompson's guitar playing is the center of attention. And deservedly so. He is an awesome stylist, in a category by himself, whether playing acoustic, or electric. His twisting, jabbing solos are jaw-droppingly good. His voice, while reasonable, is perhaps his weakest asset. It grows on you.
One more word on 1000 Years. The guitar playing. If you haven't heard Richard Thompson play solo acoustic guitar, you should listen to this record. It has too many instances to mention of his all-but-patented style that sounds like two or three guitarists playing at once, without the aid of any electronics, loops, etc. Probably the best examples are "Drinking Wine..." where he sets up the slap-bass beat with his flatpick on the low strings, and reels off the melody line and embellishments via fingerpicks on the high strings; and on Prince's "Kiss," where his guitar pretty much fills in for the whole funk orchestra. And he makes it sound easy.
Unique and creative song selection, sheer inventiveness, and the fact that this is unlike any other Richard Thompson album are adding up to make 1000 Years of Popular Music one of our favorites in RT's extensive discography. And Ducknapped isn't bad either!
[David Kidney and Gary Whitehouse]