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Grace and Power: Richard Thompson lets his songs get away from him.

Healing Power

Celtic troubadour Richard Thompson is no flash in the pan

By Greg Cahill

When Playboy magazine asked Richard Thompson a few years ago to contribute picks to a millennial list of best pop songs, the seminal folk rocker took the task to heart and selected the highlights of the last 10 centuries. The editors at Playboy weren't amused, and the list never saw the light of day. Now Thompson has recorded the songs on his recently released album 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which spans a millennium of greatest hits from the oldest round in the English language to Britney Spears' "Oops! I Did It Again."

Richard Thompson, the cult king of Celtic folk rock covering the princess of pop? Quirky to be sure, but no one will ever accuse Thompson of being commercial.

Not that he hasn't had his share of acclaim. When asked to name their favorite guitarist in a poll a while back, both Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler singled out Thompson. And his songs have been the subject of two tribute albums featuring Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, and Linda Ronstadt, to name a few.

Most recently, bluegrass legend Del McCoury scored a hit with a cover of Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a version that became the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2002 Song of the Year. On his new CD, It's Just the Night, McCoury covers two more Thompson songs, "Dry My Tears and Move On" and "Two-Faced Love."

"Songs sometimes take on a life that you weren't expecting," says Thompson of the spate of covers. "If someone else covers one of your songs, then you get a different interpretation of it in every sense, musically and lyrically, and the whole feel of it can be completely different. I suppose at that point it gets away with you--the song is out of your control. That can be a good thing or a bad thing."

Actually, Thompson has three new albums: the aforementioned tongue-in-cheek 1,000 Years of Popular Music; More Guitar, a 1988 live recording that showcases his acrobatic fretwork; and The Old Kit Bag, a strong set of new material that reinforces the Los Angeles Times' proclamation that Thompson is "beyond dependable, producing albums of increasing grace, power, and intensity."

True to Thompson's penchant for penning songs that address life's deeper reaches, The Old Kit Bag carries the subtitle, "Unguents, Fig Leaves, and Tourniquets for the Soul."

That says it all.

"Or maybe it says too much," he laughs.

Certainly, no one is going to accuse Thompson of dodging meaningful topics in his songwriting. The Old Kit Bag begins with "Gethsemane," a heart-wrenching tale of disillusionment and betrayal, what Thompson describes as "a slightly codified account of a friend. This friend had a very idyllic childhood. As he grew up, life became disappointing, and nothing was quite as free as where he came from," he explains. "He became frustrated and ill, and became an alcoholic. It's very tragic. But I wanted to write about the pressure on boys as they leave behind freedom and innocence."

"Outside of the Inside" finds Thompson, a Sufi, discussing the way faith blinded the former rulers of Afghanistan to all things modern. "Generally speaking, it's about fundamentalism--Muslim, Christian, whatever--and they're not people I'm fond of. I think they are bigots and stupid people, who use a little bit of power to lord over others."

Some writers have expressed surprise that Thompson, a longtime Muslim, would criticize others of his faith. "Well, I don't know if I can be considered 'a devout Muslim'--that's a comparative term," he says. "I'd probably be at the liberal end of any religion, whichever one I chose. But I see the Taliban as medieval and ignorant, offering a very narrow interpretation of a religion."

For Thompson, the songwriting process is "cathartic"--after all, a lot of folks experience the same disappointments but prefer to bitch and moan rather than put pencil to paper.

"Well, I do a bit of moaning myself," he says with a slight laugh. "And I have a fairly typical male response to trouble, which is to go out with your mates and get drunk or engross yourself in sports. . . . But it is rewarding to express your own frustrations or someone else's frustration," he says.

Is it a form of salvation?

"Well," he laughs, "that's probably too strong a word. But music can save your life sometimes. It probably saved me from working in a bank or something. That's a kind of salvation right there. Music is a great healer, a great diffuser of things like racism. It cuts through boundaries, and it's a very positive force in the world."

Does he think Britney Spears will ever cover one of his songs? "Who knows," Thompson quips. "If she plays her cards right, she could have a song or two of mine."


Richard Thompson performs a solo acoustic show Saturday, Oct. 4, at 9pm, at the Mystic Theater, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Danny Pierson opens the show. Tickets are $25. 707.765.2121.

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From the October 2-8, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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