Tag Archives: Richard Thompson

Watching The Dark

15 Jan


With hundreds of thousands of  bad compilation albums out there, it’s easy to forget that there are some good ones too. I suppose the advent of iTunes and shuffle buttons mean that fewer people care about listening to tracks in the sequence the artist intended them to be heard – and certainly a lot of compilations are thrown together, seemingly at random. This one is an exception: A triple-CD collection of  tracks recorded by Richard Thompson  between 1969 and 1992. It was compiled (actually, I’d prefer to say curated) by long-time Thompson enthusiast Edward Haber and issued in 1993 on Hannibal Records (HNCD 5303), the label set up by Joe Boyd who had produced many of Thompson’s finest recordings over that period. It was also pulled together with the artist’s full involvement.

In more recent years Thompson has been the subject of two substantive box sets.  (Plus a double album anthology of his period with Capitol Records (Action Packed)). There’s  RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a mammoth 5 CD + book collection produced by Free Reed in 2006 and a 4 CD retrospective, Walking on a Wire put out by Shout! Factory in 2009) but this was the first real anthology (although Island records issued a double album of live tracks and rarities in 1976 when Thompson had left the music business for a while to live in an Islamic commune). Listening to this again though, I think it may be the best of the whole bunch.

The first thing to note about Watching the Dark is what good value it is. Each of the three discs contains more  than 70 minutes of music and of the 47 tracks, only half (24 if you’re pedantic) were available at the time of issue. The remainder are a mixture of  live versions of songs, re-mixes, wholly unreleased or unavailable material. The package also includes a carefully compiled and expensively-produced colour booklet. While not including song lyrics this does provide details of the source of each recording (studio or venue) and every musician plus a thoughtful essay on Richard Thompson’s career to the date this collection appeared.

The next thing to note is how the project is sequenced – which us unusual but works surprisingly well. Instead of attempting to ‘theme’ the material or simply present it chronologically, Haber groups the tracks into two or three year periods (1978-80,  1972-73 and so on) but then spreads it about (so three tracks from Thompson’s Fairport Convention period are in the middle of disc 1 while three from his  first solo album are on disc three while the five most recent songs of all are in the middle of disc 2.  I can’t work out why this works so well – but it does! Another thing I found impressive was that Haber didn’t feel the need to represent all of Richard Thompson’s side projects. This means that although the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson collaboration is featured (‘Bird in God’s Garden/Lost and Found’) there’s nothing from other ensemble albums like Morris On, Rock On or Saturday Rolling Around.

Finally, there’s the music. The five LP’s worth of songs recorded with his former wife Linda Thompson form fifteen of the tracks here – and for me they’re among the most outstanding (‘Withered and Died’ and ‘Strange Affair’  are certainly in my top-ten Richard and Linda favourites! Interesting too are three songs which were released on the Shoot Out The Lights album (‘For Shame of Doing Wrong’, ‘Backstreet Slide’ and ‘The Wrong Heartbeat’)  but which are represented here in earlier versions produced by Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy for an album which Richard Thompson vetoed because he hated the production.  I think they’re rather good though, although the sound is rather ‘lusher’ than I would have associated with Thompson at this time.

Also well-represented are live tracks from the Richard Thompson Big Band which, for a while, included Clive Gregson and Christine Collister (who were making their own albums as a duo around this time). A later female vocalist who was part of the band for a while and who is represented here is Shawn Colvin.  Others featured include Pete Zorn, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol as well as past and present Fairport Convention drummers Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway.

In the mix too are some solo performances – including a handful of acoustic guitar versions of traditional tunes.

All in all, it’s a really impressive collection and worth commending. Although it’s not cheap, even on Amazon, it shows that decent compilations are worth buying if they’ve been compiled with care and attention to detail (unlike those which appear without even crediting the artists, producers and engineers whose work is represented).


Planet Waves

12 Apr


I bought this Bob Dylan album from 1974 sometime between 1978 and 1981,  not as a conscious decision for this particular item but because it was discounted. (At that time  very few retailers discounted  anything much – and certainly not for big-league artists like Dylan)! I know this because during this period  I spent unhealthy amounts of time in every record store I passed, calculating what I could next afford. Honestly.

I always think of it as a curiosity from the strange interregnum when Dylan left the Columbia/CBS/Sony label before realising that this rather corporate company actually did a pretty good job for him. In addition to ‘Planet Waves’, this period saw the live ‘Before the Flood’ appear on Asylum (in North America) and on Island Records (ILPS 9261) in the UK. In addition, it always seems to me to be both under-rated and overlooked given the proportion of strong songs it contains.

There are eleven tracks on ‘Planet Waves’ including what is probably the best-known (and most covered) song Forever Young, which appears in two versions. A slow version closes side one of the disc and a more jaunty one which opens side two.  It’s a tender, warm, song from Dylan to his children and is one with which any parent can empathise. The first version (lasting nearly five minutes) is something of a dignified, hymn-like paternal blessing while the up-tempo, rockier version comes in at a little under three minutes. Both are great – and for anyone two likes understanding how a song takes shape, I’d also recommend a two-minute early demo take of the song which did not appear until 1985 (on the ‘Biograph’ collection).

The familial theme continues in the album closer (Wedding Song) which is a love song – but one with typically Dylaneque twists of enigmatic ambiguity. If it’s not entirely an autobiographical song to his then-wife Sara, then there must certainly be some personal elements in it – and it’s performed by Dylan alone with his guitar and harmonica.

Backing elsewhere on the album is provided by The Band – members of which are on top-form throughout – particularly on the more out-and-out rock ensemble pieces (like the opening track On A Night Like This and later on You Angel You).

There are two other great tracks for me though. The first is Going, Going, Gone, a moody, bitter song of endings and partings where the lyrics blend anger, hurt and resignation and the  backing oozes a sense of foreboding and weariness.  It really is a remarkable, intense three and a half minute of music.  Dylan’s final verse runs:

I been walkin’ the road
I been livin’ on the edge
Now, I’ve just got to go
Before I get to the ledge
So I’m going
I’m just going
I’m gone.

I’ve always wondered, as someone who admires Dylan and Richard Thompson in equal measure, whether this lyric is answering the anthem Meet On The Ledge, written by a teenage Thompson for Fairport Convention’s second album (1969’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’) which has the lines:

The way is up along the road, the air is growing thin
Too many friends who tried, blown off this mountain with the wind

Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I’m going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again.

(OK, this is a speculative conceit – but Fairport DID include a cover of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine on the 1969 album!)

If Forever Young and Going, Going Gone are the stand out tracks, the understated gem is (and one of my Dylan favourites) is Never Say Goodbye. There are two reasons why I like this track. The first is a wonderfully melodic bass line from Rick Danko which introduces the song from 11 seconds in until the vocal begins at 26 seconds. I don’t quite know why but I just love it!

The second reason is the opening verse which runs:

Twilight on the frozen lake
North wind about to break
On footprints in the snow
Silence down below

I can’t articulate why, but it’s really evocative.
I really don’t get why this album is so overlooked – perhaps the the austere cover. Anyhow, go listen!


Won’t Be Long Now

19 Oct


Issued earlier this week on Topic Records (TSCD822) ‘Won’t Be Long’ is the first album from Linda Thompson since 2006 (and only her third collection of wholly new material this century). Although she’s hardly prolific, her albums have always been worth waiting for and this one is no exception.

I’ve always loved Linda Thompson’s voice since I first heard her sing alongside former husband, Richard, back in the seventies. It’s an enormously expressive alto – with a slight edge but one that gives it a certain vulnerability rather than harshness.

The  support cast is pretty classy. The main collaborators are producer Ed Haber and also son Teddy who who supplies the main acoustic guitar parts as well as contributing two of his own songs and co-writing another four with his mum.

Others from the extended family also contribute – especially on the Anna McGarrigle/Chaim Tannenbaum song ‘As Fast As My Feet’. I can remember hearing the composer perform this in London at the Shaw Theatre (now demolished) back in the eighties –  but I think it only made it onto record last year.  The lead vocal on this uplifting uptempo track is taken by daughter Kami while daughter Muna joins Linda on backing vocals. An astonishingly mature Thompson-esque electric guitar solo is taken by Linda’s teenage grandson Zak Hobbes and it also features bass by  Jack Thompson (Richard, but not Linda’s son) and drums are provided by Fairport Convention’s  Gerry Conway, with whom Linda first recorded in 1972 as part of The Bunch!

Other backing musicians include Richard himself, accompanying her with some sensitive acoustic guitar on her self-penned opener, ‘Love’s For Babies And Fools’, which harks back to their work as a duo (“Let better pens than mine/ Extol the joys of love divine/ Before I ruled love out/ I searched every north and south”).

In addition there are appearances by David Mansfield, and British folk royalty Dave Swarbrick,  Martin Carthy (along with his daughter, Eliza) and John Kirkpatrick.

There are nine further songs in the collection, a couple of which are traditional – including a live, unaccompanied version of ‘Blue Breezing Blind’ Drunk’ and one which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Gangs of New York (‘Paddy’s Lamentation’). The song that first grabbed me though was ‘If I Were A Bluebird’ – which shows off Linda Thompson’s melancholic vocal to great effect, contains great guitar from David Mansfield and is the sort of song than in ten years, many people may well think IS traditional.

Although I’m not going to list the remaining tracks, be assured that none of them are ‘fillers’  The time it’s taken to assemble this collection means that it has strength in depth

Eagle-eyed fans will note that the image above is from the lyrics booklet rather than the CD cover and is included because it’s autographed!

Freedom and Rain

13 Oct


From 1990, on the  Cooking Vinyl label (COOKCD 031), Freedom and Rain was a collaboration between June Tabor and the Oyster Band.  Although very well-received, it was a one-off project of an album and short tour (I was fortunate enough to catch them headlining at that year’s Cambridge Folk Festival) and it wasn’t until 2011 that they decided to do a follow-up (which I’ll write about shortly).

It was an inspired pairing though: By this time the Oyster Band had carved out their own distinctive instrumental take on English folk-rock (involving concertina and cello – which set them apart from others in the genre) and they benefited on this album from the assurance and strength of Tabor’s matchless voice. And on the other side of the equation,  June Tabor, whose own work is usually characterised by spartan, restrained instrumentation benefited from having a fuller, richer mix – something she had begun to explore by guesting with Fairport Convention at their festival a couple of years earlier).

What makes this such a good album is the selection of material – just ten songs, three traditional and seven contemporary – most done quite fast.

The selection opens with ‘Mississippi Summer’, an unusual, brooding choice for musicians so closely associated with the music of the British Isles but which introduced me for the first time to the songwriting of Si Kahn.

Track two  two is a melodeon-driven take of ‘Lullaby of London by the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan – perhaps a little to ‘jaunty’ for me although it does show McGowan’s songwriting skills to good effect.

The third selection is ‘Night Comes In’ which first appeared on Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Pour Down Like Silver’. Taken at a faster tempo than the original, this rocks out in a way that makes it a bit more accessible and it just about works since June Tabor’s interpretations Richard Thompson songs are always worth hearing.

Next up is a version of Billy Bragg’s ‘Valentine’s Day is Over’, where a female vocal (especially June’s)  works better than a man’s (even the composer’s): “Thank you for the things you bought me/Thank you for the card/Thank you for the things you taught me when you hit me hard/Love between two people should be based on understanding/Until that’s true you’ll find your things all stacked out on the landing/Surprise, surprise Valentine’s Day is over” .

Track five is perhaps the most surprising cover, the Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ by Lou Reed. This works remarkably well and is a highlight of the collection – with June Tabor’s imperious, austere, vocal surpassing Nico’s original from 1967, some great drumming from Russell Lax and what’s either a cello or a viola providing a drone-like backing. (This track is in the same vein as the Oyster’s earlier cover of New Order’s  ‘Love Vigilantes’).

The first traditional song is ‘Dives and Lazarus’ – taken a swift pace which really rocks out and benefits from a cracking bass line from Chopper and a three-piece brass section. This version also contains the wonderfully weird descriptive lyric line line:  “Hell is dark, Hell is deep, Hell is full of mice” that makes me smile whenever I hear it.

Track seven is another trad. song (‘Dark Eyed Sailor’) which is one of my favourites. I first heard this done by Steeleye Span and have another version interpreted by a very young  Kathryn Roberts and Kate Rusby . All are wonderful – this version , again done at pace with a hard-rocking rhythm section.

The eighth track (‘Pain or Paradise;) sounds like it ought to be traditional but was written for the Albion Band by John Tams and issued as a single in 1979. Based on a sea-shanty (‘Riding on a Donkey) which I first learned at school, this features a double-tracked June Tabor vocal and (once again) a driving brass section. A great song.

‘Susie Clelland’ (aka ‘Lady Maisry’ or ‘The Burning’) is the final traditional song on the album (number 65 of the Child collection of ballads) and describes the fate of a Scottish lady who had the temerity to fall in love with an Englishman! The string arrangement works really well.

The collection closes with the only song by one of the performers – Ian Telfer. ‘Finisterre’ is a lovely, slow acoustic number with a wistful lyric and one of the few tracks where you can really hear Alan Prosser’s guitar work above the mix.

It tempting to speculate what might have been had these six musicians stayed together to build on this album’s success – and what might have happened if a major label had been there to give it a decent marketing push – but as it is, it’s still one of the top ten examples of Folk-Rock Britannica and well worth tracking down if you don’t know it.

Norma Waterson

14 Aug


Issued in 1996 on the Hannibal label (HNCD1393), this was the first solo album of Ms Waterson. Remarkably, it was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize that year (along with Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and the eventual winner, Pulp’s Different Class).

Of course Norma Waterson was no stranger to live performance or to the recording studio in the 1990s – indeed you wonder why she left it until she was in her fifties to make this album! Her career began in the mid-1960s as part of the Watersons (one of England’s finest unaccompanied traditional singing groups)  and broadened out subsequntly into work with her husband (the equally renowned traditional singer and guitarist, Martin Carthy MBE) and daughter Eliza.

There are several things that combined to make this project special . First of all it was recorded in Los Angeles with an American producer (John Chelew). I suspect that a big influence here was Joe Boyd who had founded the Hannibal label – which he was still running, (despite having sold it to Rykodisk) and who is credited as ‘Production Consultant’. Boyd certainly had a big reputation as the producer of Nick Drake, REM, Pink Floyd, the McGarrigles etc.

The second element to the mix were the contributing musicians. In addition to her husband (acoustic guitar and vocals) and daughter (vocals and violin), Norma Waterson used British-born  LA residents Roger Swallow (drums) and Richard Thompson (on guitars) plus the [unrelated] Danny Thompson (double bass). All of these had known and/or worked together for years: Swallow was in an early Albion Band with Carthy, who’d worked with Richard Thompson on projects with Ashley Hutchings and Norma’s siblings (Mike and Lal) and Thompson R. was working regularly with Thompson D. at this time  In short, these were people who were comfortable with each other but who were used to walking different musical paths as well asworking together.

The third part of the mix was , it goes without saying, Norma Waterson’s voice – big, expressive and rich, harmonising intuitively with her family and framed with a sympathetic and much more developed instrumental mix than I’d ever heard backing her before this.

The final, perhaps most unexpected but certainly most delightful feature of the album was her choice of eleven songs which was both eclectic and inspired. Opening with the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter composition Black Muddy River, she went on to cover Billy Bragg (St Swithin’s Day), Richard Thompson, Ben Harper, Elvis Costello and the Norman Curtis blues number, popularised by Nina Simone, Rags and Old Iron.  As if this weren’t enough the remainder included the self-penned Hard Times Heart, one from her sister’s pen and even a traditional hymn (There is a Fountain in Christ’s Blood).

It’s hard to categorise this collection. It’s not ‘folkie’. or ‘rock’ it’s something in it’s own category. It’s also bloody brilliant.

Bootleg USA

2 Jul


From 1999 by British acoustic guitarist Martin Simpson, this is not an unauthorised bootleg, more an artist-approved boutique issue! My copy (with this cover) is on the imprint of High Bohemia Records of New Orleans. The same 10 tracks are available nowadays  from Mr Simpson’s  own website ( http://www.martinsimpson.com ), with a different cover and on his own Simpsonian label.

It was the first Martin Simpson album I bought,secondhand from Pied Piper Records [now gone] in Northampton, and it showcases why he’s such a fine acoustic guitarist.

It’s essentially just a bloke and guitar, recorded live at three concerts from 1998 and 1999 when he was based in the USA, plus one studio track  (‘Fool Me Once’) with the additional accompaniment of Jessica Ruby Simpson on vocals and Doug Robinson (bass and vocals).

I first came across Mr Simpson as an accompanist to the mighty June Tabor so it’s apt that the opening track is a song (‘Plains of Waterloo’) from her repertoire. The next is an inspired pairing of songs from John Tams (‘One More Day‘) and the Dylan number ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. These are combined with real sensitivity.

Track five is one of my favourite Richard Thompson songs, ‘Strange Affair’, from the composer’s most overtly Islamic period (also covered by Ms Tabor)  and this is probably why I bought it. And  track 8 mixes ‘Highway 61’ with Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, again with a lightness of touch and instrumental ability.

If you like hearing great guitar playing, Martin Simpson is a reliable exponent – but I guess the reason I keep playing this is because of his choice of songs.


P.S. Listening to the rest of the album post-posting (if you see what I mean), I’d forgotten how good the track ‘Icarus‘, by Ann Lister is.  And how well Martin Simpson interprets it.

Strict Tempo!

21 Jun

Strict Tempo

In 1981 Richard Thompson was out of contract with a record label so he formed his own, Elixir Records, and put this collection of “Traditional & Modern Tunes For All Occasions!!” out himself. He explained to his biographer, Patrick Humphries “…it was a remarkably cheap record – about £800 or something – I think we recouped it within hours of release. I think we’d actually driven round to HMV in Oxford Street and recouped! Delivered our own records!”

It is Mr Thompson’s only all-instrumental collection to date and consists of 12 tracks, all credited as ‘traditional, arranged Richard Thompson’,with the exception of Duke Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’. In addition all the instruments are played by Thompson and Dave Mattacks who is credited with “drums, percussion and piano on ‘Ye Banks and Braes’.

It goes without question that Richard Thompson’s guitar playing – both acoustic and electric is exceptional and this album has the bonus of hearing him play bass, harmonium, mandolin, banjo, hammer dulcimer and even penny-whistle! As I write this I’m listening to the mixture of styles he handles effortlessly – not just polkas, jigs and reels but early music, north African -influenced music and of course the single-handed cover of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Although Elixir never released another item, it can be seen as a remarkable success since Strict Tempo! has been licensed repeatedly. In addition to the original vinyl I have one such CD re-issue, from 1981 on the American label Carthage (catalogue CGCD4409),whose logo appears top right on the front cover. Interestingly the actual disc also bears the logo of Hannibal records, to which Richard signed for his next few releases.  There are also pressings out there with a different cover – but the quirky original is part of the charm of this collection

Morris On

28 May


I first bought this on vinyl on Island Records’ budget HELP label for something like £1.49 in 1974, a couple of years after it first appeared. My current copy is a CD on the boutique Fledg’ling label (FLED3037). I got it largely because it featured three former members of  the ground-breaking ‘Liege and Leif’ line-up of Fairport Convention (Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks) along with a couple of others, (Barry Dransfield and John Kirkpatrick) who I didn’t know at the time. This album was also the first time I heard the great English traditional singer Shirley Collins (credited as Shirley Hutchings because she was, at the time, married to Ashley) who provided vocals on a couple of tracks.

In its own way ‘Morris On’  is no less remarkable than ‘Liege and Lief’ because what Ashley Hutchings did (and while the album is credited to all five principals, it was Hutchings who assembled them and put the project together). This was to record twelve traditional morris dance tunes using their traditional accompaniment of fiddle and concertina supplemented by a rock trio of  electric guitar, bass and drums. This sounds pretty simple now – but nobody had ever thought of it in 1972 and it worked surprisingly well! Morris dancing – and the music that supported it was, at the time,  deeply unfashionable – but this project exposed it to a rock audience. While it  didn’t make it fashionable, it did help kick it out of a reverential, respectful  ‘preservationist’  men-only custom into a  more open and enjoyable revival of the tradition which continues to this day!

For readers outside the UK it may be necessary to explain that morris dancing is a traditional English custom, going back at least to the 15th century, in which men (and back then,  it WAS just blokes), drink beer in between undertaking formation ensemble dances – generally in the open air. They are often dressed in white, sometimes wear bells on their knees and wave white handkerchiefs or large cudgels or swords, depending on local tradition.  Some sides also perform with blacked-up faces – although since the custom goes back way before Britain became multi-cultural, there are no modern racist connotations). The word ‘morris’ appears to be derived from ‘Moorish’ and may relate to  the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 15th century.

The players sound like they had a great time – it’s energetic, exuberant, good-humoured and slightly eccentric. The tunes chosen are deeply evocative of rural England and the recording was done ‘as live’ – which gives it a homespun sound – complete with false starts. They even brought in a morris side to perform a couple of stick dances as the tape rolled.

Pretty much every time I play this I end up smiling and humming along!

Blight & Blossom

28 Apr


Released in 2012 on Rooksmere Records, ‘Blight and Blossom’ is the debut solo album by Blair Dunlop and one of the best recordings I bought last year (it won the New Horizon Award and BBC Radio2 Folk Awards.  Unusually,  I bought it as a digital download.

Blair Dunlop is the son of Ashley Hutchings (founder of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Albion Band and Rainbow Chasers) and in the same way I’ve checked out Richard Thompson’s children (Teddy and Kami) and Loudon Wainwright’s (Rufus, Martha and Lucy) I’d followed his earliest steps and  noted his precocious talent on a couple of early EPs.

It’s an amazingly assured and mature record from someone who’s only 21. Nine original compositions (of which the title track, ‘Young Billy in the Low Ground’ and ‘Bags Outside the Door’ are the best) , one traditional track and a hitherto-unreleased Richard Thompson song (‘Seven Brothers’). Mr Dunlop’s singing and writing are good and will get better – but if his guitar-playing also continues to improve it’s that which will makes his reputation: It’s quite awesome.

Mr Dunlop is also part of a ‘next generation’  Albion Band and has found time to cram parts as an actor into his working life! (While still a child  he played the young Willy Wonka in the 2005 film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)  Clearly the man has talent to spare and it will be intriguing to see where he goes next.

The History of Fairport Convention

21 Apr


This is a great artefact as well as a collection of music! It’s since been re-released as a single CD with a different cover but this review is of the double album issued on Island Records in 1972 when Fairport was taking time out  re-convening before the Rosie album the following year. It was a package put together with real care: a gatefold sleeve, fronted by a Pete Frame family tree, detailing who was in which incarnation of the band between 1967 and 1972 . Inside was a bound-in booklet with an intelligent note about each track and photos and, on the early pressings, even the paper ‘seal’ and ribbon on the cover was real (and yes, on my copy it is blue – others are red or green).

I think I bought it in about 1974 having read about Fairport in Melody Maker and New Musical Express and, not quite knowing where to start, decided to go for an anthology first. Little did I realise that this would be a purchase that would define a large part of my musical landscape  over a period now approaching forty years!

Although there’s nothing from their debut album (which was on a different label back then – now the rights to both their Polydor and Island recordings belong to Universal), it was a pretty good summation of what the band was about at that time. Twenty tracks – some written by luminaries Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny (and less common inputs from Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Ian Matthews) plus the ever-reliable “Trad. Arr.” which invariably showcase the fiddle of Dave Swarbrick.

Plenty of these still make appearances on today’s Fairport setlist – although not as carbon-copies.

I’m not sure I’d recommend this  as a first purchase for anyone unfamiliar with Fairport – and the abridged CD has less appeal – but if you still own a turntable and ever see a copy of the double album in good nick, snap it up!