“So,” I asked after sitting down at The Birchmere recently, “how long have you been in the cult?”
Without asking what I meant, one of the men sitting across the table from me responded, “I was getting Richard and Linda Thompson import records from England in the 70s.”
“I came to it later,” said the other.
Richard Thompson is a legend of modern music. He has influenced not only fellow Brits, but roots music worldwide; the Americana Music Association gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. He made a welcome return to the DC area at The Birchmere for two dates on Jan. 21 and 22, and I caught the second of the two.
With a career stretching back to the ’60s, Richard was the original guitarist for the seminal British folk-rock group Fairport Convention. He described them as “a band of no great significance, we just invented folk-rock.” More seriously, he mused that the Springfields’ 1962 albums Silver Threads & Golden Needles was the first folk-rock record.
Fairport Convention’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was named the most influential folk recording by BBC Radio. Demonstrating droll wit, Richard dryly remarked, “I merely tell you this to impress you,” eliciting peels of laughter. Richard covers the song in tribute to the original singer, the phenomenal Sandy Denny, who passed away tragically young.
In 1969, Fairport Convention didn’t just release an album — they released three. “You could do it in those days,” he reflected. In addition to the Sandy Denny tribute, he also delved into the Fairport catalog to play “Mattie Groves,” a Scottish ballad written in 1543. “When people ask me about my influences, I always say Scottish traditional music. The language is so powerful and economical.”
Before becoming a musician, Richard grew up in London. When he was 16, his family moved from a relatively central location in London to the end of the tube line in the suburbs. If he went to see The Who at the Marquis Club — a 400-person theater, before they went supernova — he’d have to choose between skipping the second set and a 13-mile walk home. Even with school the next morning, he stayed, at least sometimes. Looking back, he wrote “Walking the Long Miles Home” as a tune he could have sung during those long night journeys.
Richard’s wit absolutely sparkled. Introducing “Valerie,” he asked, “Don’t you hate it when your favorite artist, or rather your fourth-favorite artist writes a song that sounds like other songs?” But, as asserted, “there are only finite words and finite notes.”
He joked that “Beeswing” would be “the first of several 82-verse ballads,” warning the audience, “verse 15 is a bit dull.” The previous song, “Crocodile Tears,” had the audience cracking up.
The concert began with “I Misunderstood,” followed by the “Ghost of You Walks.” The set included his biggest hit, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” as well as a traditional tune with lyrics by the poet Patrick Callum.
Late in the set, he brought out Zara Phillips for harmony vocals on several numbers. Zara, who sang on Richard’s latest album, 13 Rivers, joined him for two tracks from the album: “The Storm Won’t Come” and “The Rattle Within.” He originally recorded “Wall of Death” with his ex-wife, singer Linda Thompson, while “She Never Could Resist A Winding Road” was part of the Joan Baez 75th Birthday Celebration.
Stream 13 Rivers by Richard Thompson on Spotify:
Two encores followed the set, which concluded with “My Enemy.” For the first, Richard performed solo on “Pass That Bottle to Me” and the Scottish ballad “Down by the Banks of Bunny,” satisfying “this poor guy [who]’s been requesting for the past two nights.” The second standing ovation of the night followed, and Richard returned to the stage with Zara for “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and “When the Saints Rise Out of Their Graves.” Introducing the latter, he said, “We’ll do a song we don’t know, but you may not know it either.”
Whether he is performing a solo acoustic set, as he was on the second of two evenings at The Birchmere, or electric, with his trio, it’s clear how much he’s enjoying himself. There’s the impish wit, and there are the little jumps he does at the end of a song here and there. At
71 70, he continues to bring energy, intellect, and passion to the stage.