Because Richard Thompson’s current touring show is called "1000 Years of Popular Music, "Thompson did not play any of his own songs. It is a sad fact of life that Thompson, one of the world’s greatest guitarists, is not nearly as popular as he deserves to be, so we did not get to hear “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” (In the canon of Thompson, whose first solo record, Henry the Human Fly, was Warner Brother’s worst-selling album of all time until it became a cult classic, these could be considered hits.)
Instead, Thompson played one of the greatest hits of “the nineties, the 1190s.” That would be the first two verses of a 407-verse lament composed by Richard the Lion-Heart as he languished in a Viennese prison after getting captured on the way home from the Third Crusade.
I feel I should probably offer up an apology here and say something like, “This is not nearly as nerdy as it sounds.” But Thompson is such an awesome guitarist that he can (as my companion observed) “play any fucking thing he wants and you will listen to him and you will try to follow his fingers on the strings and you will gape in awe.” You will not mind his lectures on each song’s place in the history of popular music. You will be amazed that he can sing in Latin and medieval Italian and Norman French and be grateful that he translates. You will admire the slide show that runs in the background and makes you feel as though you are sitting in the greatest music appreciation class of all time.
You will also be amazed by Debra Dobkin, a drummer who can thump along to “Praise to You, Queen of Heaven” (twelfth century) and rock out to the Kinks (1960s), and Judith Owen, a singer with a lovely alto that probably would have served her well during the Renaissance -- but which sounds best with twentieth-century torch songs such as “Night and Day” (1932) and “Cry Me a River” (1955)).
Here are a few things I learned:
*A madrigal is a song sung in harmony without musical accompaniment. Thompson, Owen and Dobkin do a beautiful “Pipe, Shepherd’s Pipe” (1608).
*In Britain, the music hall, which was kind of like American vaudeville, flourished from the 1820’s to the 1930’s. “I Live in Trafalgar Square” (ca. 1890) seemed to be exceptionally fun to sing. At least Thompson and Owen made it look like that.
*Despite Thompson’s best efforts, “A Man Who Would Woo a Fair Maid” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard (1888) should probably never be played on the guitar again. Ever. But his version of ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” (1976) was a vast improvement over the original.
*Members of the audience in Santa Cruz were willing to perform an interpretive dance to “So Ben Mo Ca Bon Tempo” (1590’s, Italian). St. Louisans were not so obliging, but we apparently harbor a number of Henry Purcell fans, who cheered when Owen sang “When I’m laid in earth” from the 1690’s hit Dido and Aeneus.
*Honky-tonk sounds best in a British accent (at least according to Thompson).
*“Maneater” by Nelly Furtado (2006) adapts very nicely into fourteenth-century-style Latin church music.
*The Beatles have been played to death and nearly ruined by overpopularity. But Thompson’s rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) made it exciting again, and I kind of wanted to scream, like those girls in the slides.
The show moves on to Columbia tonight (February 12). If you hurry, you can make it.
-- Aimee Levitt