Rock music is littered with the almost famous—not so much a “who’s who?” as a “who’s that?” of familiar-sounding names with largely undiscovered catalogs. From the mists of 60s folk appear out-of-focus figures like Dave Van Ronk and Tom Paxton. At the fringes of indie rock stardom are the likes of Alex Chilton and Bob Mould. The list goes on for days. Towering over this stratum of stars is fabled British guitarist Richard Thompson, whose myth is exceeded only by his talent.
Some who follow music (and musicians) are fond of calling him a peer and contemporary of Eric Clapton. This may have originated with record label marketers desperate to categorize Thompson’s noncommercial style. It continues today as a way of ranking his musical chops, while also acknowledging the circles he moves in. But the Clapton comparison always felt wrong, mostly because the two sound nothing alike. If we’re naming names, Thompson’s Celtic-Appalachian tone shares far more musical DNA with fellow journeyman guitarist Mark Knopfler. But that comparison also falls short. To get a sense of Richard Thompson’s vibe, first try to imagine Gordon Lightfoot discussing Sufi mysticism with Cat Stevens. Then add a guitar player who’s better than either of those giants and you start to get the idea.
Thompson first gained his own brand of nonstick notoriety in the late 60s as a founding member of Fairport Convention—a quintessential example of the “Renaissance Fair” rock music movement that peaked with Jethro Tull. Built around Thompson’s crisp Fender® Stratocaster® sound and the vocalizing of ill-fated singer, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention was artistic and pensive. Songs like “Come All Ye” (from their breakthrough album Liege & Lief) sound like Jefferson Airplane with folk aspirations; “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman” (from 1970’s LP Full House) helps explain those Clapton comparisons. And though Fairport Convention has found its way onto plenty of “Most Influential” lists by now, the band was never a major financial or critical success, and in 1971, Thompson moved on.
Although he was a sought-after U.K. session guitarist fluent in multiple styles, Thompson’s early solo material tended toward the experimental. This, coupled with a penchant for gloomy lyrics, held commercial success at arm’s length. But beginning in 1973, his collaborations with wife Linda brought out a more accessible side of Richard Thompson. Singles like “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” displayed his rarely heard musical buoyancy, while their duets—notably “Dark End of the Street”—were perfectly balanced acoustic set pieces. Their musical popularity grew as their marriage declined, and when they parted ways in 1982, Richard Thompson emerged as a supremely confident tenor and acoustic balladeer. A succession of impressive solo albums—including commercial triumphs like 1991’s Rumor and Sigh—have generated a powerfully unique body of work that Thompson pulls off live with total mastery.
Thompson’s set lists typically feature an entertaining mix of lusty ballads and meditative folk numbers. In regular rotation are animated rockers like “Valerie,” reflections including “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” and the always-excellent “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which Thompson describes as, “simple boy-meets girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a motorcycle.”
Thompson’s latest release, Still, was recorded with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy at his Loft Studio in Chicago. Tweedy’s offbeat acoustic sensibilities are evident on a number of tracks, notably Beatnik Walking and Broken Doll. The stripped down production gives Thompson’s signature ballads and character studies room to breathe. Articulate guitar work also stands out.
The new album has been well-received, but it’s not clear that Thompson thrives on critical reception. He’s carved a niche for himself by avoiding upper-case stardom. Instead, he continues to trip the light fandango for small but loyal crowds in intimate venues. It works for him. It works for fans. That’s what success looks like for this legendary folk rock troubadour.