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From Medieval Madrigals to Britney Spears

Richard Thompson’s history lesson

Feb. 6, 2008
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When singer/songwriter Richard Thompson brings his “1,000 Years of Popular Music” tour to the Pabst Theater on Feb. 7, his fans may be surprised to learn that none of the British folk-rocker’s own music will factor into the program. According to Thompson, who has recorded more than 50 albums in varying musical combinations, including four film soundtracks and 10 with his group Fairport Convention, this omission is completely by design.

“It would be really pretentious of me to say, ‘Here’s 1,000 years of really great songs and, by the way, here are a few of mine as well,’” Thompson said in a recent interview from his home in Santa Monica, Calif.

Undoubtedly, fans of Thompson’s songwriting would disagree. The musician has earned the Ivor Novello Award for songwriting, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC and the ardent admiration of fellow musicians Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt and David Byrne, all of whom have recorded Thompson’s compositions. Thompson even placed 19th in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” right behind Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante and just ahead of jazz legend James Burton.

At least the musician’s guitar playing, much of it on his familiar Fender Stratocaster, will loom large on a stage populated by only three performers. Thompson is joined by vocalist Judith Owen, described by one critic as a “chanteused-out version of Tori Amos without the suicidal tendencies,” and vocalist/percussionist Debra Dobkin.

The trio works very hard to replicate the sounds of everything from Medieval madrigals to Gilbert & Sullivan to Prince, sometimes with varying degrees of success, but always through unique interpretation. “It’s an ambitious, pretentious rediscovery of music,” Thompson said. “We try to tackle everything written between 1000 A.D. and 2000 A.D. We’re not skilled in all areas, but no one else is, either.”

The show’s concept was prompted by a 1999 letter from Playboy magazine asking numerous musicians, Thompson included, to identify the 10 greatest songs of the last millennium. Playboy’s editors, of course, were thinking of songs dating back to the 1950s, when the magazine’s first issue was published. Thompson, however, took them at their word, submitting a list dating back to the 11th century.

Needless to say, Playboy didn’t publish Thompson’s list. However, the letter did give the musician the idea for his current show, first performed at Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum in 2000. Thompson has been periodically touring with the program ever since.

“It’s been very interesting to explore different areas of music with which I wasn’t familiar,” Thompson said. “What I found are a lot of similarities among popular styles of music over the centuries, a lot of consistency among both musical and lyrical threads.”

One of the most consistent characteristics has been music al simplicity and the presence of melody lines over what Thompson called a rhythmic “drone,” not unlike bagpipe music, which establishes one chord or a series of chords, then weaves melodies in and around those chords. Consistent themes also dominate a thousand years’ worth of lyrics, he said. Chivalry, love and moralization are fairly constant lyrical themes, as are political commentary and attacks against social injustice.

“There’s also a lot of ‘going-away’ in musical styles and fashions,” Thompson explained. “Good ideas often get thrown out with the bath water, so to speak, and some never come back. “The collective improvisation in early New Orleans jazz, including syncopation on the offbeat, disappeared completely and necessarily as jazz evolved into swing,” he added. “There are some really interesting lost musical ideas that someone could incorporate into the music of the future.”

Such elements will be threaded throughout Thompson’s performance, which will progress from Middle Ages’ reels to what has been described as a very interesting turn on Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again.” The works of the Beatles and Hoagy Carmichael, snatches of opera and other surprises will pepper the song list, which changes nightly based on the mood of both the musicians and audience. It’s an approach with which the 58-year-old Thompson, who still maintains an extensive touring schedule, is very comfortable.

“With Fairport [Convention], we tried to revive British traditional music by blending it with rock music,” Thompson said. “I’m still looking for that synthesis and with this program I’ve found some very fertile ground.”

Richard Thompson plays the Pabst Theater on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m.


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