MUSIC: A thousand years with Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson is one of the most distinctive, talented singer/songwriters out there, and one of my all-time faves as I've blogged here before. But at his concert Tuesday night in Eugene, he didn't play a single one of his own compositions. Instead, he started off with an 11th-century medieval round, following that up with a cheery ditty from the 1400s about ravens eating a dead knight. And on he moved through the centuries, wrapping it all up with songs by Britney Spears and Abba.
It was "1,000 years of Popular Music," and it was outstanding fun, a raucous 2 1/2-hour tour of dozens of musical genres, all played with impeccable skill by one of the finest guitarists you'll ever see. RT got the idea for the project from a Playboy interview of all places, about his favorite songs of the millennium. In the stage show, he takes a musical tour of the last ten centuries or so worth of music, filled with witty asides, jokes and banter. It's an incredible journey, from the aforementioned medieval rounds up to opera, sea shanties, music hall sing-alongs and to the current rock era. It's one of the most original concerts I've ever seen, and a heck of a lot of fun.
I hadn't been to the The Shedd before, but it's a fine venue – an old church, with an intimate feel and great acoustics. I sat in a pew in a row not 20 feet from RT, directly in front of him. Can't get much better than that.
It's a measure of RT's skills that he can put a unique spin on nearly everything. The British folkie covered a high lonesome Americana country tune by the late Buck Owens (whom RT told a funny story about meeting once in the '70s in a diner in Detroit; Owens called him a filthy hippie apparently, but RT doesn't hold it against him). RT played a thundering cover of Prince's "Kiss," a rousing Gilbert & Sullivan tune, a great turn on the Kinks' "See My Friends," and a show-stopping rendition of Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" that wrings actual emotion out of a cheesy pop song. RT finds the hearts and bones in a song and makes it his own – I mean, he rocks a song sung in medieval Italian!
His singing partner Judith Owen was also fantastic, with a deep, throaty voice that could balance opera, Cole Porter and Beatles tunes. In fact, with her great stage presence, she nearly overshadowed RT a couple times, no mean feat. I picked up her fine jazzy CD "Lost and Found" after the show. (I also learned from her Web site that curiously enough, she's the wife of Harry Shearer of "The Simpsons" and "This is Spinal Tap" fame!)
Once the show switched from the distant past on to straight-ahead rock about halfway through, it was hugely cathartic. The older songs were excellent, but when RT broke out in a full-fledged rockabilly blast through Jerry Lee Lewis' old chestnut "Drinkin' Wine Spo-De-O-De," I felt like I'd been doused with adrenaline. He blew through songs by The Kinks, Beatles, Squeeze, Ben Folds and more. And two full encores and several standing ovations!
It wasn't until near the end of the show I realized RT hadn't played a single one of his own hundreds of fine songs. He noted, it might appear a little egotistical – "here's the greatest songs of the last thousand years … and a few by myself," he said. But honestly, he put his own unique mark on every tune he sang Tuesday. I look forward to catching him again someday when he does "Richard Thompson's finest songs of the last 1000 years" or somesuch.
*Photos not actually from the concert I went to, by (C) Dave Bazemore from the RT web site and from Judith Owen's web site.