About the best song Richard Thompson performs in his current 1,000 Years of Popular Music tour is Britney Spears' "Oops! ... I Did It Again," which depending on your point of view is either very good or very bad. Good because it shows the virtuosity of an artist who can turn a pop bimbo's bit of fluff into a vaguely Celtic piece of work. On the other hand, if this is the best material Thompson finds over the past thousand years, maybe he should have gone back further or, frankly, just picked better tunes.
The whole idea of 1,000 Years of Popular Music was inspired by Thompson being asked by Playboy magazine to name the millennium's 10 greatest tunes. Purposely misinterpreting the request to mean the last 1,000 years instead of the end of the millennium is typical Thompson and it disqualified his entry.
However, it gave him an excuse for playfully investigating songs through the ages, which in some cases are his perfect material. According to Thompson, "My list started in 1068, winding slowly up to the present. That they failed to print my list is but a slight wound -- it gave me the idea for this show."
Speaking with Thompson by phone shortly before the holidays, we discussed his latest 1,000 Years of Popular Music tour. Nobody surpasses him in reinterpreting traditional and medieval Anglo-Celtic folk modalities mixed with rock, blues and even polkas.
Looking at his exceptional career, he's the quintessential Old English troubadour/guitarist/songwriter, noted for his exceptional guitar skills and equally noted for his limited commercial success. This droll Master of Misery has many high points in his 40 year career.
First came his work with Fairport Convention, England's greatest folk-rockers. It was his guitar playing that caught legendary producer Joe Boyd's ear. Those recordings are still marvelously listenable. Another exceptional moment was his recording with soon-to-be ex-wife Linda Thompson, on the harrowing Shoot Out the Lights. For his most recent milestone, he hit a measure of good fortune with his "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" tune.
Despite his generally bleak and morose themes, he's actually a compelling and almost jolly live performer. His wry humor is pervasive, whether in song selection, interpretation or just plain conversation. He explains, "This tour, including Charlotte, it's just three-and-one-half weeks and that's it. Then it's back to L.A. a bit, through the U.K. as a solo and continental Europe in May. Then it's festivals in summer and blah, blah, blah."
The current 1,000 Years tour consists of Thompson singing and playing guitar along with two accompanists. Judith Owen is a singer/songwriter with a smoky folk-jazz vocal bent. Also performing is percussionist Debra Dobkin who plays trap drums, djembe, darbouka, Celtic drum and according to notes, the occasional piece of luggage.
According to Thompson, the current 1,000 Years CD is, "Pretty much the same as the live version. The only exception is a different percussionist was used on the recording." The percussionist there was Michael Jerome.
"One of the charms of the (present) show, with just three musicians -- it is slightly insane," Thompson explains of performing with just two other musicians. "If we were more it would be more competently played and performed. It would lose some of its irony -- but not all."
Asked if that includes the Britney song "Oops! ...," Thompson replied, "Well, the irony might get lost on a lot of people. But it's really a very well constructed pop song. Not too different from something from the year 1550. Surprisingly so."
The show, Thompson says is, "Ridiculously ambitious. No one really can perform all these songs well. But we'll have a go at everything and there's a certain charm in that. And we can turn people on to something they haven't heard. There are some really good stories and songs that haven't been heard."
Though you can't fault Thompson's charm and enthusiasm who knows what possessed him to include the wildly inappropriate "Cry Me a River?" There are some other misfires, but the good selections generally outweigh the bad.
After 40 years of music, he still has much to offer. If you don't mind a few fa-la-la's in your old English minstrelsy, you might just enjoy yourself. As no one captures post-modern English medieval soul like Thompson, you'll be thrilled when he goes medieval. And you should be rightfully awed at his guitar picking and plectrum strumming. Only a few artists have lasted this long and remained relevant, and while you may not enjoy everything, you can easily appreciate Thompson's skill, drive, artistry and dark humor.
Richard Thompson will perform at the McGlohon Theatre, 345 N. College St., at 8 p.m. on Jan. 19. Tickets are priced from $24 to $44.