Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Going Down In Musical History

Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years Of Popular Music, The Barbican, 3rd February 2009

I must admit to being something of a latecomer to the work of Richard Thompson. Whilst I’ve long been an admirer of that superb trilogy of Fairport Convention albums on which he played a major part (What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief), their appeal was always mainly for the contributions of Sandy Denny and the vigorous reworkings of folk material. His own catalogue, along with the excellent albums made with his former wife Linda, has always seemed dauntingly vast. Where exactly does one start? I’ve started to delve in quite recently, and now have most of his recent recordings (Sweet Warrior, Mock Tudor, Front Parlour Ballads, The Old Kit Bag) as well as the classic albums with Linda (I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Shoot Out The Lights), but there’s still so much to devour.

Luckily, this concert didn’t require too much prior knowledge of Thompson’s own writing. The project began as a witty but meaningful repost to the storm of list-making that accompanied the turn of the millennium. Pundits asked to compile their favourite music of the millennium inevitably tended to concentrate solely on the twentieth century. Thompson opted to examine the whole 1,000 years. In doing so, he drew ties between various strands of folk music, and successfully outlined the powerful connections between seemingly disparate musical forms.

Performing with the excellent singer Judith Owen, as well as vocalist and percussionist Debra Dobkin, the first half of the performance consistently fascinated, introducing me to a whole world of music about which I am relatively ignorant. We were treated to pastoral songs, ballads, sea shanties, mining songs and madrigals, all performed as much with fun as with reverence.

Thompson’s engaging warmth and humour was evident from the outset. Beginning on the Hurdy Gurdy, he refused to use it as a tokenistic gesture for just one song. ‘When I get something big strapped on, I like to keep it there for quite a while’ he jested, with surprising frankness. This style of banter continued throughout the show.

His introductions to the material, even the better known songs, proved as engaging and entertaining as the music itself. Before performing a beautiful reading of ‘Shenandoah’ he explained: ‘It’s kind of a call and response thing. I’ll call….and I’ll respond…just to avoid any confusion’. Performing songs in medieval Italian, French and Latin, he often gamely translated, at least giving a strong sense of the music’s themes and preoccupations.

One early highlight was an appropriately eerie version of ‘The False Knight on the Road’. The song is well known in the folk canon, having been performed in a much faster version by Steeleye Span amongst others. Thompson’s slower version has more mystery and power. This song, and many others, benefited from Thompson’s dexterous but always musical guitar playing.

There was plenty of wry and amusing flirtation between Thompson and his co-performers, particularly the entrancing Judith Owen, and he allowed both plenty of space for their own contributions. Owen’s delivery of ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’, an elegant and spare misremembering of what had already been a folk song anyway by the poet WB Yeats. Owen’s performance is achingly haunting, delivered in a pure, controlled voice that sadly gave way to irritating mannerisms in her contributions to the second half of the concert. In writing about Feist’s song ‘Intuition’, I remember observing that whilst there are plenty of songs about break-ups or unrequited love, there are relatively few about the regret that sometimes follows rejected love. Here was a prime example of such a song, a testament to the power of the theme in its endurance. I was struck by its elegant simplicity, both lyrically and musically. Sometimes what is most simple really is most profound.

As an enthusiast for contemporary music of all stripes, I never thought I’d argue this, but with all these riches in the first half of the performance, the second half’s focus on the twentieth century gave it undue prominence. Perhaps it’s just that the journey from the music halls to contemporary R&B traverses more familiar terrain, but I felt this section of the concert also suffered from some errors of judgement.

First and foremost, the movement from Cole Porter standards to Rock n’ Roll and Country seemed to ignore the most important contribution to contemporary popular music, that of the blues. Surely, at the very least, a song from one of the Delta Blues performers would have been essential? Whether intentional or not, what we were left with was a history of popular music that largely sidelined the contribution of black music. But the blues was and still is surely one of the purest forms of folk music.

Also, the restraint and clarity of the performances of the early music, so powerful and meaningful, was inexplicably abandoned in favour of some clattering deliveries lacking in nuance. Maybe this was purely to communicate the new music’s emphasis on relentless rhythm and energy, but Debra Dobkin’s trap set drumming, effective on a handful of songs, quickly became an intrusive nuisance, especially when the tempos drifted. Similarly, Judith Owen’s voice, characterised by real feeling and honesty in the first set, became more affected and abstruse, particularly on the jazzier material (which apparently is where her own interests lie). The beauty of the standard repertoire is that it can be taken on two levels – Owen emphasised the banality more than the insight. Neither Dobkin nor Thompson seemed entirely comfortable with swing.

Nevertheless, the second half of the show was hardly a complete failure. Thompson made some judicious and surprising selections. He acknowledged the influence of the Kinks (originally The Ravens) on his North London childhood by performing ‘See My Friends’, one of Ray Davies’ greatest achievements, also hinting at the contribution of Indian folk traditions to western pop in the 1960s. The closing clatter of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’, interspersed with a medieval section in Latin, was spirited and fun.

Whilst Thompson has suggested that his purpose in undertaking this project was to uncover some of the ideas and forms buried in ‘the dustbin of history’, I rather suspect its effect has been to do the complete opposite. Tonight’s concert suggested, to me at least, that there has been plenty of consistency in what has made music ‘popular’. Directness and simplicity, in the right hands, can indeed be artful, and often succeed in bringing people together with a sense of common purpose and spirit. There is a rich tradition in musical communication that survives today, in spite of music’s often more nakedly commercial impulse.

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