Monday, December 21, 2020

The steel of Richard Thompson

There's a good new edition of Matthew Bannister's podcast "Folk On Foot" in which he accompanies Richard Thompson as he revisits places in London that played a part in shaping him and his music: William Ellis School in Highgate, where he formed his first group with fellow pupil Hugh Cornwell, the house on Fortis Green Road in Muswell Hill which is still named Fairport, the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden where he first encountered the Irish tenor Joseph Locke and the site of the old Marquee Club in Wardour Street, from which he would sometimes walk all the way home to Whetstone, getting home at three o'clock in the morning before getting up for school in the morning.

Thompson emerged from the same stable as Nick Drake and John Martyn at around the same time. They were all exceptionally gifted players and songwriters. Such troubadours are paradoxical figures. We like the idea that such people are introverted but they can't be so bashful that they can't command a room. Drake was so shy he didn't manage to complete the few gigs he did. Martyn seemed to need stimulants or depressants before he could truly look an audience in the eye. Thompson, who presents as shy but knows exactly what he wants, said in an interview that to survive on stage you have to develop a persona which is a larger version of your actual personality.

And so he has done. When he appears on stage today there's no doubt who's in charge. "Folk On Foot" is a different challenge. It calls on him to get out his guitar and perform songs like "Meet On The Ledge" and "Long Walk Home" at the site of the places which inspired them, out on the street in the middle of the day without anyone to give him the big build-up, with people rushing by presumably wondering who the busker in the baseball hat is. 

I often think this kind of al fresco performance is more difficult than facing a stadium full of people, none of whom are actually looking you in the eye. To stand in an alley just off Wardour Street and belt out "The Long Walk Home" as Richard Thompson does here calls for steel that most performers simply don't have.