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The Life and Music of Richard Thompson For The Anoraks of The World - Music from Richard Thompson, in Abundance

Richard Thompson
"RT" ≠ The Life and Music of Richard Thompson
Free Reed (

Free Reedís box sets, excellent as they are, usually have an eye on what the English call the anorak market. Earnest males who delight in standing on windswept station platforms, recording the serial numbers of every passing railway locomotive, have always favoured this weatherproof garment, and its name has become associated with the dedicated connoisseur, the seeker after exhaustive detail and trivia, the obsessive fan. When I say that Free Reedsí five-CD Richard Thompson is an R.T. anorakís dream, I mean it in the most complimentary sense. Such is the longevity of Thompsonís career, the complexity of his lyrics and music, the brilliance of his guitar playing, and the mystery of his character ≠ frighteningly dark in his art, yet affable and amusing onstage - that he certainly attracts a particularly discerning and devoted audience. The good news for them is that, over nearly forty years of his career heís spun off a wealth of out-takes and live recordings, the cream of which Free Reed present here in lavish splendour.

Thompson followers are well aware that there are few better live performers on the planet. Ready to raid any corner of his back catalogue, however obscure, he delivers time after time versions of classic songs that far outstrip the original studio recordings in intensity and invention. His guitar work, technically astounding and influenced by such unlikely bedfellows as Django Reinhardt, Duane Eddy and the Scottish bagpipes, grows in stature on the concert stage whether in those lengthy electric guitar workouts that form the stuff of legend, or in the mind-bending acoustic solos combining simultaneous melodic improvisation and chordal accompaniment. In fact, itís as a solo performer that heís at his most electrifying, attacking his rockiest numbers with a half-crazed venom that threatens to spill altogether out of control, but never quite loses it. Anyone who doesnít believe that heís one of the great rockíníroll singers of all time (and I do know people who insist he canít sing!) better listen to the Who covers on Disc Four. Yet amidst all this uptempo frenzy he also delivers some of the most tender and touching songs to be heard anywhere. And all of that is here in Free Reedís set, mostly live and previously unissued, often solo but also with former partner Linda, various incarnations of the RT band, and Fairport Convention.

Each CD has its own theme. Disc One, "Walking the Long Miles Home" has perhaps the flimsiest concept, consisting supposedly of songs based on "autobiography and observation" (a theme for which so much of the Thomson catalogue qualifies as to be virtually meaningless), and making wild leaps in successive tracks between "Willie Oí Winsbury" and "Donít Sit On My Jimmy Shands." It opens with the darkly comic "Now That I Am Dead," not even a Thompson composition and neither autobiographical nor observational, but itís hammed up to the heavens and very funny, so who cares? On a more serious note, "Lotteryland" is a biting social commentary performed for live radio, and a band version of "Shoot Out The Lights" boasts a spectacularly violent guitar break. "Nobodyís Wedding" is exhumed from "Henry, the Human Fly" partly as an excuse to segue into the entertaining bubble-pricker "Madonnaís Wedding," and he renders a powerful solo reading of "Withered And Died."

CD Two, "Finding Better Words" contains "the classic songs" (as voted for by friends and fans) and, although every fan will find something to quibble about in the selection, classics they undoubtedly are. A blistering, acoustic "I Feel So Good" makes mincemeat of the rock version on "Rumor And Sigh," thereís a brooding "Down Where The Drunkards Roll" with an exquisite acoustic guitar solo, and a lovely reading of "Beeswing." Lindaís singing is heart-stopping on "Dimming Of The Day" (arguably his best song), while Christine Collister and Shawn Colvin help out on excellent renditions of "Wall Of Death" and "Waltzingís For Dreamers" respectively. The only slight disappointments are "Tear-Stained Letter," a muddy and rather chaotic recording with missed words, whistled solos and an extended audience singalong ≠ surely thereís a better live cut of this in the vault somewhere? ≠ and "Vincent Black Lightning," which is good but not substantially better than the original album version, and not up to some electrifying live performances Iíve witnessed.

"Shine In The Dark" (CD Three) is the place to go for the big guitar solos and band arrangements, a terrific reading of the monumental "Calvary Cross" forming the centerpiece. Following this almost-ten-minute epic with a further twenty-minutes-plus of jamming on "Sloth" and "Night Comes In" isnít the cleverest piece of programming ≠ you can get too much of a good thing, and they might have used the effective acoustic versions of "Valerie" and "Ghosts In The Wind," or the fun big-band arrangement of "Crash The Party," to punctuate the heavier numbers. However, things end on a high with John Kirkpatrick joining the band to reprise a couple of tunes from the 70s electric morris dance album "Morris On" in an outrageous medley with the 50s novelty hit "Flying Saucers RockíníRoll."

RTís penchant for bizarre covers of anything and everything is highlighted on Disc Four, "The Songs Pour Down Like Silver," which runs a truly staggering gamut from trad folk to Britney Spears ≠ whose "Whoops I Did It Again" is leant an edge of menace not obvious in the original. Along the way we get a hot jazz workout with Danny Thompson on a 1940s comic retelling of "Hamlet," a George Formby music-hall ditty, and rockíníroll thrashings of "Danny Boy" and "Loch Lomond." In some ways this is the most entertaining disc of the lot, but true Thompson completists will be heading towards the rarities of Disc Five, "Something Here Worth More Than Gold." Thompson is well-known to have discarded countless songs that many a songwriter would have been proud to have written, and this collection of live cuts, outtakes and demos demonstrates the quality of his reject pile. "Albion Sunrise" - the calling-on song many years ago of Ashley Hutchingsí Albion Country Band - is here, along with "Bad News Is All The Wind Can Carry," once covered by Brass Monkey but here accompanied by a doleful harmonium. Other oldies display prominent folk or country tendencies, while "Alexander Graham Bell" is a jazzy testament to the wit of Thompsonís wordplay ("Heís improved our lives a smidgeon, from the age of the carrier pigeon"). Bringing us right up to date, "Dear Janet Jackson" takes on the subject of said divaís televised mammary exposure with outrageous bad taste and hilarious results.

If the quality of the CDs werenít sufficient, the package comes with a 168-page book providing an extremely well-researched, entertainingly-written and pleasingly eccentric account of Richard Thompsonís career and the background to the songs. Itís full of obscure facts, fascinating digressions, and terrific illustrations, from behind-the-scenes photos to yesteryearís concert posters. The facsimile brochure advertising Vincent motorbikes is the kind of thing youíd only ever find in a Free Reed box set, and speaks volumes about the loving attention to detail that has gone into this product. Itís absolutely terrific, and although a listener new to Thompson might find the sheer volume of material overwhelming, all his fans, aficionados and anoraks simply canít afford to be without this. - Brian Peters

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