The year 2002 has been a difficult time to be a Muslim in the United States of America. Richard Thompson doesn't make a big deal out of being a Muslim, but in some quarters he is still criticized for remarks that were taken out of context and blown out of proportion in the late 1980s regarding the death sentence that an Iranian cleric passed on British author Salman Rushdie.
So it is notable when the English folk-rock godfather and renowned guitar stylist performs a new song aimed explicitly at the Taliban. Only four songs into his solo acoustic set at Portland's Aladdin Theater, Thompson introduced "Outside of the Inside" as a song from the point of view of a member of Afghanistan's now-defunct former ruling party.
The song leaves little doubt where Thompson, a devout jazz fan, stands. In the first verse, the Taliban member says:
God never listened to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker lived in vain
Let a needle numb his brain
Wash away his "monkey music"
Damn his demons, damn his pain...
Of course the song works just as well as a condemnation of Christian or any other kind of fundamentalist:
I'm familiar with the cover
I don't need to read the book
I police the world of action
Inside's where I never look
But don't get the idea that this was an altogether somber affair. Thompson seemed relaxed and focused in the nearly two-hour set that included songs from his forthcoming, as-yet unnamed release (set for January 2003), and songs from his years as a member of Fairport Convention ("Genesis Hall") and as a duo with former wife Linda ("Withered and Died" and "Shoot Out the Lights").
Among the new numbers was the opener, "Words Unspoken, Sights Unseen," and "Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne," both of which he has been woodshedding at gigs since early 2001, and "Destiny," which is fairly new to the setlist. Both "Words Unspoken" and "Auld Lang Syne" have benefitted from their numerous performances. Their taglines are quite catchy and the instrumental backing very well developed.
A highlight of Thompson's current setlist is a mini-set taken from his critically acclaimed "1,000 Years of Popular Music" show, which he premiered at Los Angeles' Getty Center in 2000, and which ran for five successive nights at Joe's Pub in New York in July 2002. This night's mini-set included, as it has most recent nights, the 19th Century American ballad "Shenandoah" and a 17th Century Italian song, "So ma ben c'a bon tempo." The third number of the segment, one of several 20th Century pop songs he plays in rotation, on this night was the Britney Spears hit "Oops! I Did it Again." All three were quite successful arrangements and immense crowd pleasers.
Although he has a reputation as an overly serious performer and songwriter, Thompson in person always displays a quick and very English sense of humor. He setlist always includes one or more humorous songs. Currently in the lineup are two of his own composition: "My Daddy is a Mummy," a delightful rockabilly kids' song about ancient Egypt, and the tartly satiric "Madonna's Wedding." Some audience members mistakenly take "Cold Kisses," his creepy song about an insecure man snooping through his girlfriend's drawers, as another in this vein, but they're disabused of that notion by the end of the second verse or so.
The measure of a singer-songwriter's skill and level of innovation is the ability to continue to freshly interpret even the "greatest hits," those songs that he or she has to play nearly every night. Thompson has several songs that qualify, particularly "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and "Shoot Out the Lights." He continually adds interesting guitar bits and vocal interpretations to both, usually successfully. His instrumental embellishments on "Lights" pushed the envelope quite far, including brief snippets of styles as divergent as Reinhardt, Hendrix and Atkins, and some audience members may have had a hard time following him back to the melody.
But Thompson's audience is willing to indulge him his flights of fancy because they generally serve the song and are almost always interesting, even if they don't always work.
This night, he rewarded the sellout crowd's attention by granting a request for "Beeswing", and by including the rarely performed gem, "God Loves a Drunk" from 1992's "Rumor & Sigh."
It's hard to write a Richard Thompson review without trotting out one superlative after another, or sounding jaded. So here goes: It was another near-perfect gig by one of the hardest-working and most overlooked men in the business.
New York singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz turned in an affecting and heartfelt opening set. Kurtz is an idiosyncratic guitarist and a forceful singer who grabbed this audience's attention and kept it with songs like "Just Like Jack," told from the point of view of a small-town Midwestern woman seduced by a Beat poet; and the smoldering soul anthem, "Love Gets in the Way."
You can find out when Richard Thompson is playing near you, download rarities, see photos from recent gigs, and read about the adventures of his gardener at his Web site
You can learn more about Dayna Kurtz (and you should)
and download some sample tracks
at her Web site