Richard Thompson and various artists, "RT" The life
and music of Richard Thompson
(Free Reed, 2006)

"It's good to be able to choose to look back." -- Richard Thompson, as quoted by Nigel Schofield in "RT" A celebration of the life and music of Richard Thompson the book accompanying the box set of the same name.

Richard Thompson was definitely due for the career-spanning box set treatment. Overdue, many of his longtime fans would say. Free Reed, which specializes in this type of set for U.K. folk and folk-rock music, has done a smashing job on RT.

Time for a disclaimer of sorts. I'm a longtime member of the Richard Thompson mailing list, a worldwide group of fans that keeps in touch by email. That group was one of several that participated in selecting the "essential" RT songs that eventually came to make up the No. 2 CD in this set. I'm not as longtime a member as some (the group goes back to about 1995, the very early days of the Web, and I didn't join until '97), as I'm not as longtime a fan as some. I discovered Richard Thompson in the early '90s, sometime after the release of Rumor and Sigh, when, I would argue, he was just beginning to come into his own as a mature solo performer. So I'm not one of those, and they are many, who have counted themselves RT fans since the late 1960s when as a teenager he was a founding member of Fairport Convention; or since the 1970s when he and then-wife Linda created a memorable handful of top-notch albums before spectacularly flaming out as the decade ended; or even since he went solo in the '80s and toured with a hard-hitting band that included Clive Gregson and Christine Collister. In fact, so enamored was I with the mature solo RT that it was more than a couple of years before I cared much for the Richard-and-Linda music and especially the recordings from the Fairport years.

The RT box set does, of course, cover his entire career, and at a total of six CDs if you get the mail-in bonus disc (more on that later) does so in much more depth than the only previous comparable effort, 1993's three-disc Ryko set, Watching The Dark. And one other key difference with this set is that nearly everything included has never been officially released before, with just a couple of exceptions from the 2003 Internet-and tour-only CD, 1000 Years of Popular Music, and a couple of covers on Disc 6. Otherwise, they're all previously unreleased live takes, or rehearsal takes or recordings from radio programs, etc. Some may have appeared on some earlier fan-special cassette releases, but they were never in broad circulation.

It's just the sort of thing that the longtime fans have been clamoring for for years, and for the most part, they should be happy. No, ecstatic. Which doesn't mean that it has quieted them any; in the weeks following its release in early February 2006, it has generated more buzz than a hornet's nest hit with a cricket bat.

OK, enough preliminaries. It's time for the details. RT has 102 tracks spread over six CDs. They're organized by themes: 1. Walking The Long Miles Home -- Muswell Hill To LA 20 tracks that reflect the life and times and broad autobiographical themes of Thompson's life, from suburban London to his present home in Los Angeles. 2. Finding Better Words -- The Essential Richard Thompson 17 tracks voted on by his "fans, friends and fellow musicians worldwide." 3. Shine in the Dark -- Epic Live Workouts 11 tracks, only one of them shorter than five minutes, in which Thompson's guitar becomes another voice and carries the song forward into new sonic territory. 4. The Songs Pour Down Like Silver -- The Covers and Sessions 22 tracks in which Thompson covers the work of other artists, plus a couple of well-known covers of his songs. 5. Something Here Worth More Than Gold -- Real Rarities a disc in a paper sleeve with 15 tracks that've never been officially released on disc. 6. RT on FR A 17-track bonus disc, free to the first 5,000 purchasers of the set who mail in a postcard, that includes Thompson's contributions as composer or performer, to other Free Reed box sets; five of them have never been available on any other Free Reed release.

It is indeed a veritable bounty of Richard Thompson music. If you're still left wanting more after this, you're a certified fanatic.

Here are some of my impressions, after spending several hours with this set over a couple of weeks:

Disc 1 is billed as "a collection of his songs based on his observation of real events, real places and real people," which is just as likely a red herring as anything else ever said by RT or on his behalf. I love that it starts with "Now That I Am Dead," previously heard on one of the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson discs. It's a topical or novelty song about the fate of lesser-known songwriters like himself, who, the joke goes, only become popular upon their passing. Its placement at the No. 1 spot seems yet another attempt to put the lie to his "gloom and doom" reputation.

Which is, of course, dispelled immediately by the next couple of songs, "Genesis Hall" and "Josef Locke."

The pairing of "Nobody's Wedding" and "Madonna's Wedding" is delightfully appropriate, as the latter appropriates the tune of "Mary's Wedding," which RT traditionally tacks on to the end of the former.

On Disc 2, the inclusion of the relatively obscure "Push And Shove" was a triumph of a handful of vocal and persistent fans, and for the rest of us as well. This rocking, tongue-in-cheek cynical ditty is vintage Thompson, and it's a tidy performance. Everybody is bound to be surprised by something that was included or not on this "essential RT" disc, but it's as good a list as any I've seen. The shoo-ins of course were the ballads "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and "Beeswing," his two most requested songs, and "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight," the title track of the critics' favorite album. The only previous appearance on disc of "From Galway to Graceland" was a live track on Watching the Dark, so the sweet version here with Fairport from 1996 is a treat, as is the 1981 live Richard and Linda take on "Dimming of the Day."

The "epic live workouts" on Disc 3 include some that are expected and some surprises. I wouldn't normally think of "Valerie" as a candidate for an extended guitar excursion, but there it is, largely in one transitional chord which leaves you straining for its long-delayed resolution. I'd never much cottoned to "Night Comes In" until the first time I listened to the intense live version here, which may very well boost the song into my "RT Top 10." And there's a boot-scooting take on "Crash The Party," with better fidelity and arrangement than in the Watching the Dark version.

The cover versions on Disc 4 show the depth and breadth of Thompson's musical vocabulary, an expansion on his 1000 Years of Popular Music show and disc. In addition to some of the songs found on that CD, there are some rockers from The Who and Buddy Holly, some French punk-rock, some English music-hall standards and some folk standards from both sides of the pond. Not to be missed is his cover of Phil Ochs' anti-war anthem "I Ain't Marching Anymore," which aroused no little bit of controversy at the 2002 gigs where he played it in response to the drumbeats of war in the Middle East, complete with a new verse about "blood for oil."

The tracklist for Disc 5, touted as "real rarities," is in a way an extension of the fourth disc, consisting as it does mostly of RT topical and novelty songs previously only heard at concerts. Here, for instance, is "Woman or a Man," previously covered by Michael Doucet's Cajun Brew, as well as the instructive "Alexander Graham Bell" and "My Daddy is a Mummy," and the titillating "Dear Janet Jackson," previously available as a download from his Web site.

Others from among the cover songs RT trots out in concert to lighten the mood occasionally are sprinkled throughout: Frank Loesser's "The Story of Hamlet" on Disc 4, and "Madonna's Wedding" already mentioned on Disc 1.

The bonus Disc 6 is an interesting artifact, RT songs from other Free Reed boxes. Early favorites are "The Hangman's Reel" with Fairport, from Swarb!, "New St. George" by Albion Country Band from Burning Bright, and among the bonus tracks, the RT Band's "The Gas Almost Works" from Nigel Schofield's personal archive. What a treat to see American singer Debra Cowan honored with the inclusion of her cover of "Has He Got a Friend For Me?" Cowan is a fine interpreter of songs and gets some deserved exposure here.

OK, now the niggling. I'm curious that the compilers, on the one hand, took the trouble to fade-down the crowd noises on so many tracks, and on the other hand included so many sing-alongs. Maybe it just seems like so many ... I'm not a big fan of hearing crowd sing-alongs on disc in the first place -- I bought the thing to hear the artist perform, not to hear a bunch of fans make a hash of it. But if you're going to put one on disc, use a recording where it sounds as though more than five people are actually singing along, and they aren't out in the parking lot. Graphically, the accompanying book is very busy. On some pages, the eye can hardly decide where to light. But ... Nigel and crew had a lot of info to convey in a relatively small space of 170 or so pages. For the most part, the type is reasonably legible. There are an awful lot of typos and a few incorrect dates. Another set of careful eyes before going to press would've caught most of them, I'd think.

But whenever I find myself in a mood to make petty observations like the above, I tell myself to grab the headphones -- or if I'm alone, to crank up the speakers -- and listen to the nearly 13-minute version of "Sloth," or that lightning-fast "Cooksferry Queen," or the corrosive workout of "Put It There, Pal," or the incendiary 1991 RT Band "Shoot Out the Lights" or the devastating "Walking on a Wire," or ... well, just drop the needle anywhere and enjoy. RT is, like the man himself, too diverse to really fit in a box. But this sprawling box comes about as close as possible to capturing the art and artistry and sheer humanity of Richard Thompson.

"Cheers!" to Free Reed.

As of this writing, some 3,000 of the limited edition of 5,000 of Disc 6 had been claimed, so if you're going to try to snag one, don't delay. Details on this and all the other Free Reed sets are available at Thompson's own Web site or at Free Reed.