Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Guitar Man

By Gene Hyde

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  It seems surprising, but legendary British folk-rocker Richard Thompson has never performed in Memphis. “I don’t know how I’ve missed it,” Thompson says. “I haven’t been hip enough to, up to this point.” With his Valentine’s Day show at the New Daisy Theatre, Memphis finally gets to experience the man Spin magazine once dubbed “quite possibly the best guitarist in rock.”

Thompson’s career began in the late ’60s, when he co-founded the seminal British folk-rock band Fairport Convention. After leaving Fairport in 1971, he recorded a series of extraordinary albums with his wife Linda, including I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver, and 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights, which was heralded as the year’s best record by Rolling Stone and others. Richard and Linda split after that LP, and Richard’s released nine solo albums since then.

His most recent recordings are 1996’s you? me? us? and 1997’s Industry, a collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson. He also played electric guitar on Philip Pickett’s The Bones Of All Men, a collection of Renaissance dance songs performed on traditional and modern instruments.

Thompson’s influences have always been eclectic, reaching across time and genre. Ever since his Fairport days he’s incorporated Celtic influences, and his music is filled with snippets of Scottish balladry and traditional jigs and reels. You might detect traces of Buddy Holly and James Burton in his guitar playing, along with countless pipers and horn players. And when he picks up his acoustic guitar, as he will at the New Daisy for a solo acoustic show, prepare for some dazzling fretwork from the man Guitar Player called “one of rock guitar’s true masters.”

Thompson is a strikingly original songwriter, a man whose tunes often ring with disturbing, haunting, and somber moments. (One song, 1974’s “The End Of The Rainbow,” might be the darkest song ever written.) He greatly admires Scottish ballads, songs ripe with woe, infidelity, and murder. you? me? us? had its share of songs in this vein, including the angry “Put It There Pal,” the bitter “The Razor Dance,” and the chilling “Woods Of Darney,” about a World War I soldier’s journey across a carnage-strewn battlefield.

Ironically, Thompson himself is a wickedly witty guy, spinning off humorous, self-deprecating lines faster than you can absorb them. He brings this banter to the stage, interspersing songs of betrayal, heartbreak, and angst with side-busting quips.

He’s just finished recording a new disc which is due in stores in May. “It’s all finished, put to bed,” Thompson says. “It’s called Mock Tudor, after the architectural style. Right now we’ve got an embarrassment of material, and haven’t decided which songs to use.” Thompson enlists the help of longtime compatriots on Mock Tudor, including drummer Dave Mattacks (a former Fairport member), keyboardist Mitchell Froom, and bassist Danny Thompson.

Thompson’s last two records represent a bit of a departure for him. While Thompson often alternates acoustic and electric numbers on his records, you? me? us? is a two-disc set that clearly delineated between the two. (One disc is electric, the other acoustic.) And while Thompson’s other records are generally collections of conceptually unrelated songs, Industry is a thematic musical treatise that examines England’s passage from a pastoral, largely rural nation to industrial and post-industrial economies.

Thompson considers Mock Tudor “a pretty straight-ahead record,” although he does hint of some sort of a thematic element. “It’s about growing up in the suburbs of London. It’s not a nostalgia record, it’s very contemporary.”

The New Daisy show is not part of a major tour, for Thompson’s just “doing little globules of tours here and there,” with Memphis on that select list of dates. “A big band tour starts in May,” Thompson says, to coincide with the release of Mock Tudor. “We’ll do the full monty, going everywhere. But I don’t think we’ll be doing Memphis then.”

At the New Daisy show, expect to hear previews of his newer material. “I’ll play a half-dozen things or so from the new album. I wouldn’t want to overburden the audience with new material,” Thompson says, “so I’ll strike a balance between aged chestnuts and the new kids on the block.” Asked if he has anything special planned since it is his first trip to Memphis, he deadpans: “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. Perhaps a Scottish version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’”?

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