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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
RICHARD THOMPSON, 1000 Years of Popular Music
The Barbican, London, January 15th 2009
Isn’t history a wonderful thing, Serge? And isn’t it wonderful that it takes great men of vision like your premier Monsieur Sarkozy to recognise history’s true purpose. Which is in this case (should you not know) to act as a mirror thrown up against the epoch-making actions of great and visionary men like your M. Sarko for instance, for the inspiration and illumination of generations to come. So I was inspired to learn that Mr S. plans to appropriate all of your French car factories (just like our world-saving President Brown has with our British banks) and turn them into museums of French history, each presenting a fantastic tableau of one of the great moments in the history of the Republic, ending of course with Mr S. himself, and his lovely guitar- playing wife. Why I even understand that our Mr Brown has suggested pitting the now redundant men of Toyota’s Wearside manufactory against those from Peugeot’s Poissy in a weekly re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt. What a truly stunning way to exploit the past in these difficult times. Just a shame that no-one from UK plc (in liquidation) will be able to afford to attend.
I’m not sure that Richard Thompson necessarily shares this view of the past. Having said that I would have to observe – and I speak with some authority here – that his One Thousand Years of Popular Music, performed to a Barbican packed with bearded Guardian-reading retired teachers and social workers (and their husbands), was not quite the best history lesson I’ve ever been a party to. But then I don’t think it was supposed to be, with his characteristic mumblings and asides (“this one’s from the industrial age, really a bit hard to date but definitely from the 1800s or thereabouts…”) a perfect parody of a not-so-learned lecturer addressing a cold village hall village history society. Richard Thompson
Is there a lesson in an evening that begins with Thompson winding a hurdy-gurdy and ends with an uplifting medley of vintage sixties Beatles (‘Eight days a week’ never sounded quite so good)? Well, perhaps the rather heavy-handed insertion of a madrigal into the middle section of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Man eater’ suggested an enduring continuity in the format of popular song through the ages, which I’m sure no-one would question. But one could question the title, which perhaps should have included the word ‘European’ given how old world-centric the content of the evening was, with scant regard even to the American tradition, let alone the undoubted influences on popular song of Africa, a chance and fortuitous by-product of Europe’s (and America’s) commercial construct of the slave-trade. But like I said, I don’t think Thompson suggested it be taken quite so seriously, so I’m content to deduce from the evening that what we really witnessed was 1000 years of Richard Thompson playing his wonderful and quite unique guitar style.
Richard Thompson
Indeed we were warned from the start that the content was unashamedly selective – “it doesn’t include the Sound of Music and no Petula Clark”. But our chronological journey, with Thompson more than ably assisted by Judith Owen on piano and vocals (hair tied back demurely for the first half, then unleashed for the second which centred on the twentieth century), and Debra Dobkin on percussion and vocals, (who if she didn’t have bells on her fingers, certainly had them on her toes) was almost exhaustive in the styles of popular song it explored. There was what might be described as traditional folk song – ‘The three Ravens’ and ‘The False Knight’ (“another song that’s very hard to date, but it’s sort of about crack dealers at the school-house door), Italian renaissance dance tunes, Elizabethan madrigals, carols, sea shanties (a first class rendition of my favourite primary school song, and really a river shanty, ‘Shenandoah’), some music hall (“my old granny used to sing me this after three or four gins …”) and even Gilbert and Sullivan. The second half began with the Inkspots’ ‘Java jive’, Cole Porter’s ‘Night and day’ (some spectacular guitar here according to my new 2009 notebook), and “Stick McGhee via Jerry Lee Lewis via my sister’s record player”, ‘Drinkin' wine, spo-dee-o-dee’ (and here I at last have something to thank Wikipedia for, which tells me that “the spo-dee-o-dee was a scat substitute for the original motherfucker”. That’s real cocktail party small-talk stuff isn’t it?). Thompson played ‘See my friends’, his (and mine, coincidentally) favourite song from the Ravens, who used to play at his North London youth club before changing their name to the Kinks, and a really jumping version of the Easybeats’ ‘Friday on my mind’. That was before the inevitable Abba (which got all the bearded ones behind us singing and shouting for Britney, from which we were spared), Nelly F, and an encore that spanned a song attributed to Richard 1st, sung in medieval French, and finally the Beatles.
And I suppose, in conclusion, that the only real lesson we learned, if we needed it, was what a prodigious musician, and entertainer, Richard Thompson is. As Jozzer – who had kindly procured us first row circle seats – observed, it would be hard to think of anyone else who could pull off such a ridiculous show with such supreme panache. You can buy a version of the show on DVD, but a much stronger recommendation would be to catch it live if you can. Groundhogs notwithstanding, what a fantastic start to a musical year. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
Thank you Nick, but why do you Englishmen always know everything about things that happen in France, that we Frenchmen have never even heard of? As for your suggestion regarding our unemployed car makers, if not enough of your compatriots could make it to Azincourt for the battle reloaded, we could always do it in Hastings I guess, but then it's the French who won't afford to attend. Wait, why not do it on Jersey? Maybe there will be less taxes on helmets and swords... (oh, and arrows). But let's listen to the good Mr Thompson now, I can't understand why he didn't play Joni Mitchell's Black Crow, he does it so well and it's certainly a very popular piece - so to speak. - S 

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