Too good to be famous

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Richard Thompson returns to Butte County

Photo by Michael Wilson

Preview: Richard Thompson solo
Paradise Performing Arts Center, Thursday, June 6

Richard Thompson, a critically acclaimed balladeer who first turned heads in the late-'60s as a founding member of British Celtic-rock group Fairport Convention, is returning to Butte County. His visit to the Paradise Performing Arts Center comes almost four years since he last played the area, at the Elks Lodge in Chico.

Thompson’s performance, in which he will showcase his wisdom, wit and guitar dexterity, is expected to be a solo acoustic show. It is the first stop on an 11-show U.S. run that he will follow up with a nine-show European stint. And it promises to include material that spans his 35-year career, which includes five albums with Fairport Convention followed by eight records with then-wife Linda Thompson and 16 albums on his own.

His musical catalog continues to expand even now. Thompson spent much of April and May in the studio with longtime collaborators Danny Thompson (bass, no relation) and Michael Jerome (drums) crafting songs for a future, yet-to-be-named album.

Thompson, 52, remains a relatively obscure name to many but is a revered musical genius in the folk and adult-alternative rock scenes and a staple on American public radio. The singer-songwriter exhibits a double-sided attack, as skilled guitar techniques (his Lowden L27F is his touring favorite) blend perfectly with his melodic ballads. Whether it be a slow, traditionally Celtic-flavored song or a rocker in which he belts out the lyrics, Thompson’s music is always intelligent, weaving an almost mythical story-telling magic into every song. And between songs, Thompson is likely to regale the Paradise audience with engaging banter and anecdotes.

Thompson, who splits time between homes in London and Los Angeles, plays about 100 shows per year, some with his band and some solo. While he’s currently in between record labels, he’s involved with three different planned projects: a rock album with his full band, a soft acoustic album and a first-ever children’s album.

Thompson is also gearing up for two other special events in 2002. He’ll visit New York City in July for a five-night run at Joe’s Pub billed as “1,000 years of Popular Music.” Reaching back quite a bit further than the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, Thompson plans to revisit material that dates back to the earliest secular songs in English, from the 13th century. He’s also scheduled to participate in a Fairport Convention reunion Aug. 10 at the Cropredy Festival in England.

Fan favorites that often crop up on Thompson’s set lists include “Beeswing,” a man’s reflective look back at the woman of his dreams whom he let get away—charming in its graceful guitar work and real-life lyrics. Another is an ode to a classic English motorcycle, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The lyric-heavy ballad, which also contains adventurous instrumental breaks between the song’s eight verses, tells the tale of a dangerous young man who declares his love for his beautiful sweetheart and turns over his prized bike just before he dies.

Thompson’s latest CD, Action Packed: The Best of the Capitol Years is a compilation of his 1988 to 1999 association with Capitol Records. In addition to the aforementioned tunes, the anthology includes “I Feel So Good” and “Cooksferry Queen.”

Over the years, Thompson’s album sales have not matched the critical acclaim he constantly receives, but he’s had his red-letter days, garnering awards from magazines and organizations for both his songwriting and his guitar mastery. Rolling Stone chose his 1973 classic, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, as one of the best records released in the last 30 years. In 1994, R.E.M, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and others contributed to a Richard Thompson tribute album, Beat the Retreat.

John Cougar Mellencamp said of the singing troubadour, “Richard Thompson could say more in one line than I could in a whole song.” And Shawn Colvin, who also sang on Beat the Retreat, said “Richard is a great artist, but that’s kind of not enough right now. It’s not fair.”

Perhaps someday a mondo-sized record label will value and promote the heck out of Thompson’s sort of wit, fingerpicking and style. Until then, he figures to continue playing for and conquering small audiences one at a time.

David Byrne had his own slant on things. "Personally, being somewhat envious of Richard’s songwriting and guitar playing," Byrne said, "it’s somewhat satisfying he’s not yet achieved household-name status. It serves him right being so good."