Thompson continues tradition of excellence
By ALAN SCULLEY
For the Call
Promotional materials issued with Rich-ard Thompson's new CD, "The Old Kit Bag," touts the CD as a distillation of all his previous records and the culmination of his efforts to pare his work down to its essence.
That statement, of course, infers that with "The Old Kit Bag," which arrived in stores Tuesday, Thompson has reached a peak and that his journey of honing his music and his sound has reached a destination.
Thompson himself, though, isn't about to buy into that line of thought.
"I wouldn't say that," Thompson said with a chuckle when asked if "The Old Kit Bag" represented a peak in his artistic growth. "I think music is a day-by-day thing. You might make a recording you think is very good, but the day after it's produced, put to bed and released, you're on to something else. In terms of the songs, I'm performing those songs every night and every night is different. Every night you think: 'Well, that was really good. I really enjoyed playing that song.' But then the next day you have to do it again and you have to do something different on a different day, and you're re-sponding to a different audience.
"So every day you have to reinvent the songs and you have to reinvent yourself as a musician," he said. "So it's an endless process and it never stops. And if I thought I'd peaked, I'd probably just have to go out and kill myself. There would be nothing else to do."
If Thompson isn't about to proclaim "The Old Kit Bag" as a watershed event, it's also fair to say that few musicians have been as successful as Thompson at re-maining a vital, ever-progressing artist.
Born in 1949, Thompson first made his mark at age 17 when he co-founded Fair-port Convention, the pioneering English folk-rock band. But as the 1970s arrived, Thompson already was moving on, leaving Fairport and releasing his 1972 solo debut, "Henry the Human Fly."
He then forged a partnership with his first wife, singer Linda Thompson that produced six albums, including two releases, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" (1974) and "Shoot Out the Lights" (1982) that are considered among the finest rock albums in history.
After the couple divorced, Thompson returned to the solo career that continues today. The 10 solo albums that have followed have continued to cement his status as one of rock's most gifted songwriters. "The Old Kit Bag," which again neatly fuses folk and rock influences, carries on the tradition of first-rate CDs from Thompson.
The CD is split between uptempo songs such as "Jealous Words," a tightly wound rocker done in waltz tempo, and "Pearly Jim," a brisk track filled with nifty guitar licks, and quieter material like the heart-bruising acoustic lament "A Love You Can't Survive" and "I've Got No Right to Have It All," a ballad with a smoky slow jazz feel.
Sonically, though, there are contrasts to Thompson's recent work. Most notably, he has stripped back his sound, using frequent musical partner Danny Thompson — no relation — on bass and drummer Michael Jerome in a three-piece setting.
Thompson, who plays guitar, dulcimer, mandolin, harmonium and accordion on the CD, also kept overdubs to a minimum.
"I suppose it's a little more in your face," Thompson said, describing the intimacy he sought to achieve. "It's to not have a barrier between you and the (listener), and to give the songs some air, put some air around the music, the spaces in there. That isn't always the tendency with popular music. So you have to be brave."
Lyrically, Thompson provides plenty of substance as well, as his songs again deliver plenty of emotional impact and insight into life's troubles. In some other interviews, Thompson has mentioned the idea of smiling through hard times as a connecting theme to the new songs. In this interview, however, he played down the notion of "The Old Kit Bag" having any sort of central concept.
"Thematically it's all over the place," Thompson said. "There are all sorts of things going on. It's just a collection of little short stories, if you like."
Still, some common threads tie together certain songs. Most notably, songs such as "Jealous Love," "I'll Tag Along," "A Love You Can't Survive" and "One Door Opens" all carry a moral to their stories about learning life's lessons. In the case of "I'll Tag Along," the lesson is the danger of not thinking for yourself. "A Love You Can't Survive" touches on the age-old adage that money can't buy happiness.
Thompson agreed that this thematic thread exists on "The Old Kit Bag," but said it was hardly a conscious attempt to create a theme. Instead, he views it as an almost-unavoidable component of lyric writing.
"I think it is there," he said of the moral-to-the-story theme. "Is it conscious? Not at all. But I think something like morality, whatever is your moral viewpoint it does come across in songs. It can be very subtle, but it doesn't matter who you are. If you're Black Sabbath, there's kind of a morality. It may be a dark morality, but it's still coming across. Your morality or your philosophy is in the back of it somewhere. You can't help that. It just happens."
Richard Thompson and his band play Friday, May 9, at the Pageant, 6161 Delmar Blvd. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Lynn Miles, cost $25.