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Electric Roots

[whitespace] Richard Thompson Beth Herzhaft

High Voltage: Though guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson nearly got electrocuted on his last visit to Santa Cruz, he returns with a charged-up new record.

Though dogged by critical indifference, fans know that plugged-in folk-rocker Richard Thompson makes sparks fly

By Ed Grumbine

IT'S USUALLY AUDIENCES who are on the receiving end of Richard Thompson's highly charged guitar playing. But when a rare September downpour shorted out the sound system during his 1998 Fall Fat Fry set, it was Thompson who had a near brush with electrocution.

The English roots-rocker had just remarked how the sight of umbrellas inspired memories of his homeland when the weather gods spoke, and a furious shriek of feedback interrupted his crowd-pleasing motorcycle anthem, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." The PA crashed and burned, the soaked audience stamped and howled, and Thompson bravely played on. But his Lowden acoustic couldn't carry beyond the darkened stage, and with a bow he quit the scene.

For his return to Santa Cruz Tuesday--a date opening the national tour for his latest, Mock Tudor--Thompson plays on a stage protected from the elements (at Palookaville), and he brings a reputation, launched with his founding of the legendary British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, that has weathered a decade of critical indifference to make him widely regarded as a player who "pretty much transcends competition." But even a performer whom Entertainment Weekly calls "the Michael Jordan of electric guitar" needs a warmup gig.

"We're opening in Santa Cruz because the audience there is particularly forgiving," quips the 50-year-old Thompson by phone from London.

Still, Thompson's three-decade career is puzzling. He's virtually unknown compared to generational peers like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. And unlike most guitar heroes, Thompson is a gifted songwriter whose material is recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt, among others. Though recently proclaimed by the Los Angeles Times as "beyond dependable, producing albums of increasing grace, power, and intensity," Thompson has never had a radio hit or platinum sales. If the 12-song collection on Mock Tudor is any indication, however, all that may soon change.

"A few years ago, I found I had several songs about London, and then I thought, 'I'll do this concept project with the city and suburbs during the '50s and beyond as a backdrop,' " he recalls of the inspiration for his 31st record. Mock Tudor, though, is certainly not nostalgic. It paints brooding portraits of loves lost and found, details close encounters with "spiritual hypocrites" and captures characters in the midst of sorting out their lives in the bleak yet strangely exhilarating urban scene. The recording is a detail-rich memoir, and the music matches the stories perfectly. All the classic Thompson strokes are here--lyrics that cut to the bone, backed by incandescent rock & roll filtered through traditional English folk, rockabilly, Celtic and Middle Eastern harmonies. And it plays well on the radio.

"Mock Tudor has a bit of the X-factor in it," Thompson says. "It has something that is appealing that you wish you could capture in every project. We recorded at Capitol [Records] in December, people heard it, and it became a favorite in the building."

While Mock Tudor may enhance his critical standing, Thompson has already built an impressive discography and earned a legion of fans who admire his gifted songwriting. In 1967, he co-founded the seminal group Fairport Convention, which brought English folk-rock to the world. With Thompson on lead guitar and sharing songwriting duties, Fairport electrified traditional British folk tunes, charging them with rock & roll energy. Centuries-old music was reborn--and you could dance to it.

When Fairport broke up, Thompson began working with then-wife Linda Peters Thompson. Two of the six records created by this partnership, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) and Shoot Out the Lights (1982), have made best-of-the-decade lists in Rolling Stone and Spin. Since ending his musical and marital relationship with Linda, Thompson has carried on as a solo performer to critical acclaim and commercial disinterest. Loyal fans roll their eyes when reviewers proclaim each new release as "just another great (ho-hum) Richard Thompson record." But Thompson remains philosophical:

"It comes and goes," he says. "I've tried to survive in the music business through trusting in my own judgment. I've found that what is popular or unpopular is difficult to assess unless it is truly incompetent or absolutely magnificent."

In a commercial age, Thompson refuses to follow any musical vision other than his own. Some listeners describe his dark-tinged view of the hard edges of love as cynical. Thompson uses the word "realistic," explaining, "You have a kind of duty to entertain your audience, and you also have a duty to stretch them, too."

And stretch them he does. Whether playing solo or with a full lineup, Thompson's concerts are legendary for stretching the amount of emotion that can be expressed guitar-and-amp. And he sings as if his life depended on it.

The current band includes Thompson's son, Teddy, on rhythm guitar, bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn and drummer Mike Jerome. This crack unit can follow their leader anywhere and turn on a dime--but as always with Thompson's bands, virtuoso playing serves the stories in the songs.

Though outside the weather may squall, there will be no freak rainstorm on the Palookaville stage Tuesday--no thunder and lightning. But when the lights come up on Thompson and company, sparks will fly.

The Richard Thompson Band plays Palookaville with Martin Sexton Tuesday (Sept. 7) at 9pm; $18 adv/$20 door, all ages; 454.0600.

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From the September 1-8, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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