Richard Thompson – WOMAD 2015

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Always talk to taxi drivers, especially if you want to be in the know about musos at Music Festivals!

Yesterday , the morning after Richard Thompson‘s tour de force at WOMAD on Friday night, I took a New Plymouth taxi to see a friend. The driver mentioned three artists he’d taken to the airport at 5.30 to fly to LA. “Was one wearing a black beret?” I asked. Turns out it was Richard Thompson, who’s made it on Rolling Stone’s list of  Top 20 Guitarists of All Time . The driver told me he and his backing drummer and guitarist were happily talking among themselves at that ungodly hour, about how much they had enjoyed WOMAD and New Plymouth, and how the audience had impressed. So second-hand I can tell you this was a success from the artists’ viewpoint.

It was the same from the audience standpoint. A huge crowd left standing room only and I did wonder why he wasn’t on the main stage, given the air of almost reverence for this co-founder of the 60’s musical groundbreakers, Fairport Convention. Those who know of them will know that their album Liege & Lief is considered to have launched  electric folk, which provided a distinctively English identity to rock music and helped to trigger a much wider interest in traditional music in general. With such longevity, Fairport Convention have had many changes in line- up and their musicians are among the most influential of their era .

So here,  on a relatively small stage in New Plymouth ,was one of the founders of British Folk Rock. No wonder there was a frisson of excitement in the crowd.

I have heard  a mixture of reactions to his show in the day since . I spoke to one diehard fan who has often heard him in smaller venues with a more folk emphasis , who told me he did not like the electric guitar sound which Richard Thompson served up to us at WOMAD.

DSC_9904I can speak only for my own seminal reaction to his musical virtuosity. I loved the show.

I loved his mastery of the guitar and was awed by his ability to keep a freshness in the performance – especially given that longevity to which I alluded earlier. How can someone who has been a musician for over 50 years still retain the ability to play a piece from his musical past so that it feels as if it is served up anew? This to me is one of the markers of a true artist , committed to keeping his artform authentic and alive, rather than  allowing himself to simply go with a pro-forma repeat performance .

I loved Stuck On The Treadmill with his big guitar and the tight work of the threesome. His drummer was adept, and he and his guitarist worked with an intuitive feel.

Sally B was delivered with passion and showcased the musical depth he has developed from this long arc of a career. I enjoyed the lyrical imagery of lines like “Your blue eyes of steel” with the steeliness of the guitar helping to paint the picture. The music was loud and dynamic, building to a dramatic point. And then for the next few, we had slow and poignant, with songs of loss and longing. This reached its apogee with For Shame Of Doing Wrong with its opening line “I wish I was a fool for you again”. Great guitar, a rich and effortless vocal delivery , and an artist lost in his instrument. It was a wall of sound that mesmerised and still retained its musical enchantment. I had a sense of him jamming with his guitarist who was facing him for this track as if reading off his moves and chords. It felt fresh and vibrant and the audience loved it back, with a huge cheer.

He did give us one with a folk guitar feel and rapid picking of the strings and we saw the man and guitar as one.

DSC_9855He told us he has a new record coming out in June and gave us a lovely piece from that about a walking tour of Amsterdam, after which he had to re-tune his instrument: ” As Jimi Hendrix said, ” We tune up cos we care about your ears man”, and he DID say that quipped this guitarist of almost equal legendary status.

He outdid himself with ” a tribute to my favourite artists from the ’60’s… Django Rheinhardt, Chuck Berry, Hank Marvin and Les Paul..some of my favourites. I hope they’re yours.” This melange of ’60’s style and beats shows how music of that era still stands the test of time. Amazing guitar. Wonderful lines in this such as ” A guitar’s like a woman and  you know I’ve got to treat her right” or ending with ” I still don’t know how my heroes did it” !

This is a man who truly loves his craft, his art, his music. A man who respects those who have gone before him and who has offered much, and still does, to those who love music and who follow in his wake.

– Lizz Gunn

photos: Michael Flynn