1000 Years at RISD I
11/4/2003 (updated 8/21/2004)

Kind thanks to Joanne Wood

It looks as though it might be a new tradition-in-the-offing that Richard Thompson plays schools on Halloween. This year, though he was sadly not at Westover this time, I was lucky enough to be at his lecture and performance in the auditorium at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. There were no tricks in store for the audience, only one treat after another, as RT demonstrated his versatility as singer, guitar master (of the ages), and impromptu music history professor.

RT's lecture on the history of popular song began at 4:15 or so and continued, with Q&A, until about 5:30. As RT said, he was aiming not so much at any sort of argument but more an overview of developments in popular song over the past thousand years. He started off with a "snapshot" of the status of and the influences on popular music @ 1000 a.d., before gradually adding in the achievements and developments that led us up to the music we recognize of the 20th century. Thus he brought us from the monophony of both sacred and popular music around the time of Godric through various additions to the modes and harmonics [descants, etc] until we had basically the full, polyphonic 'kit bag' of 20th c. song. His lecture was erudite and full of interesting historical tidbits, but truthfully the part that stood out for me was nothing that he said so much as his demonstration [on his guitar] of the way that you can trace the influence of a popular song like "Greensleeves" through various Morris and Scottish dance songs, hearing the essentially Italian chords throughout all the versions. [Almost as much fun was the anecdote about Gary Glitter on some talkshow saying dismissively about rock and roll, "Oh rock and roll -- that's nothin but three chords, in't it? A, E, and....ummmmm..."] When it came time for the Q&A, RT wanted us to discuss what makes popular song popular, but I think we might have failed him a bit on that. He tried to get the ball rolling helpfully by asking, "So who thinks Bohemian Rhapsody is a great popular song?" [I and another woman both abashedly raised our hands], but when he tried to get us in the audience to examine our gut hunches and impulses, we instead rather quickly turned the tables by asking him questions about his own music, which he reluctantly but graciously answered. [He was very kind and tactful here -- when one young woman argued earnestly that downloading music should really be looked on by musicians as promotional rather than as theft, and then asked him what he thought, he responded, "Well, you've stated very well about half of what I believe, anyway", leaving the other half undiscussed.]

But the lecture, interesting though it was, was really only a teaser for the show to come, in which we were treated to interesting stories and historical information between each song nearly as informative as the earlier lecture had been. Before I talk about how really stellar the show was (it was the best 1000 Yrs I've seen), let me give a setlist:

Sumer is Ycumen In
King Henry
So Ben Mi C'a Bon tempo
Bonnie St. Johnstone
Full Fathom Five
The Silver Swan
Tell Me No More, Fair Celia
Banks of the Nile
Blackleg Miner
Trafalgar Square
Pirate King
Why Have My Loved Ones Gone
Rocking Chair
Cry Me a River
Lonesome Whistle
The Fool
Legal Matter
Oops! I Did It Again
Sam Hall
Money, Money, Money
It Won't Be Long

Now, I had already seen the 1000 Yrs shows twice at Joe's Pub last year, and like everyone else I have been listening more or less nonstop to the cd made from those gigs, so many of these songs were very familiar. Nonetheless, the biggest shock of the show for me was that, seeing RT do these songs entirely solo for his very first time ever, I found that I didn't even miss the excellence of Michael J's percussion or Judith O's back up at all. RT's performance throughout was so seamless and accomplished that he gave the impression of doing this set solo every night of the tour rather than for the first time ever. Two of these songs -- Silver Swan and Tell Me No More -- RT had never performed anywhere before, and of course he has never _sung_ Cry Me a River before. All three were really a treat. [RT's only bobble all night was on Tell Me No More, which he launched into after saying he'd never sung it either, and then after a verse lost his place and stopped, mumbling, "Hmmm, maybe we should just skip this one after all..." -- but the audience wouldn't hear of it, shouting out encouragingly, "Play it however!" and "Finish the song!" -- After a moment of thinking, RT did, and beautifully. We were all grateful, because it was quite lovely, with striking intervals in the melody.]