Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III
7:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 9
Manship Theater, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge; www.manshiptheater.org
Walking On A Wire
High Wide & Handsome
Loudon Wainwright III
2nd Story Sound Records
Two of contemporary music's sharpest wits have joined forces to hit the road as The Loud & Rich Tour, which stops in Baton Rouge this week. Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson are known for far more than quick quips, of course — even though their deft between-song patter is reason enough to see them. Both stand out as diverse, articulate songwriters who convey richly detailed and evocative stories within the tight confines of a few verses. Both have a penchant for starkly confessional lyrics — tales of love gone awry, mainly — that are often shamelessly twisted. Now in their sixties, both command an avid multi-generational following. Both continue to create top-notch new material and sing at undiminished, peak form. In addition, Richard Thompson is, without exaggeration, one of the best and most distinctive rock/folk guitarists of our time.
Thompson rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a driving force behind the London-based band Fairport Convention. Among other styles, the eclectic group delved deep into British folk-music, melding archaic traditional material with cutting-edge rock. (A dozen years later BeauSoleil applied the same approach to Cajun music, and thus it's not surprising that Thompson and Michael Doucet are long-time collaborators who have performed together at events including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.) Thompson's conceptually unique guitar work was a major factor in Fairport Convention's appeal. During that psychedelic era, many six-stringers played on at great length in aim less, endless, indulgent jams. But Thompson's extended improvisations, with their intricate intensity and medieval modal chord-voicings, were eloquent, focused and riveting. One such epic solo galvanizes the nearly 10-minute song "Sloth," which appears on the highly recommended new box set Richard Thompson: Walking On A Wire, 1968-2009 (Shout Factory). An even longer gem, "A Sailor's Life," distinguished both by Thompson's hypnotic solo and his sensitive accompaniment of singer Sandy Denny, can be heard on the Fairport Convention anthology Meet on the Ledge (A&M).
After leaving Fairport, Thompson recorded a solo album, Henry The Human Fly, in 1972. With bad reviews and poor sales, the project foundered. It was with another singer — his first wife, Linda — that Thompson made his mark a second time. Showcasing their exquisite vocal harmonies, the two recorded a series of albums between 1974 and 1982, book-ended by I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out The Lights. The latter inspired Rolling Stone to declare Linda Thompson the Best Female Vocalist of 1982. The couple's work, highlights of which appear on Walking On A Wire, remains highly acclaimed today.
Following their divorce, Richard successfully established the prolific career solo path he still blazes today. Already respected as a guitarist, he soon gained fame as a striking songwriter with a literary flair and distinctly British sensibility. Thompson's Anglo aesthetic is hardly limited to folk revivalism, though. His pained love songs, such as "I Misunderstood," recall the torment of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage:
Things I tried to put shine in her eyes,
Wire wheels and shimmering things
Wild nights when the whole world seemed to fly
She said "The thing that's so unique
When we're together we don't have to speak.
We'll always be such good friends, you and I...
But I misunderstood
I thought she was saying good luck,
she was saying goodbye...
His sly humor and clever wordplay, as heard on "Let It Blow" suggest the late-19th-century operas of Gilbert and Sullivan:
Oh he loved the pursuit and the romance
But the details were more of a chore
When the bride's veil lifted, his mind soon drifted
At least that's what happened before...
And they honeymooned down in Ibiza
Where the sun and the nightlife were hot
As she lay on the sand, he said, 'isn't it grand?
I bring all of my wives to this spot.'
And Thompson's fascination with England's violent underworld — as heard in his most popular song, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and the equally compelling "Cooksferry Queen" — survey the same brutal demi-monde explored by films such as Performance, starring James Fox and Mick Jagger:
Now my name it is Mulvaney,
And I'm known quite famously,
People speak my name in whispers
What higher praise can there be...
Well I'm the prince of this parish
I've been ruthless and I've been mean
But she blew my mind as she opened my eyes
She's my Cooksferry Queen.
Compared to Thompson's ornate work and whisper-to-a-scream vocals, Loudon Wainwright's approach is deceptively simple, yet no less eloquent. Like Thompson, Wainwright is revered in music circles, but little-known by the general public, apart from the 1973 hit "Dead Skunk In The Middle of the Road." Although the tune climbed the charts as a novelty number, it also achieved the great cultural coup of putting old-time country instrumentation on mainstream commercial rock radio. Somewhat typecast as a comedic lyricist, Wainwright is amply capable of great poignance, too, as evidenced by his less-is-more chronicle of divorce, "Your Mother And I":
...Your mother and I are living apart,
I know that seems stupid but we weren't very smart...
Your mother and I are not getting along,
Somehow, somewhere, something went wrong
Everything changes, time takes its toll;
Your folks fell in love — love's a very deep hole.
Wainwright's latest project, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project pays tribute to an Appalachian banjo player and singer who combined folkloric material with a wide array of the day's new popular songs. One of the most successful artists in the then-fledgling country-music record business, Charlie Poole (1892-1931), was also an important trendsetter. His innovative playing and string-band arrangements helped shape the supercharged, solo-oriented style known as bluegrass, which emerged shortly after his death.
Poole also had an important if indirect connection to New Orleans via his 1925 recording of the British folk song "Didn't He Ramble," under the title "He Rambled." This song — later recorded by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and more recently by Kermit Ruffins — has become such a staple of the local traditional jazz repertoire that it's often mistakenly cited as a hometown creation. Poole's version may well have helped disseminate "Didn't He Ramble" among New Orleans musicians.
On High, Wide and Handsome, Wainwright interprets many of Poole's best-known songs, including "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "I'm The Man Who Rode A Mule Around the World." To his great credit, Wainwright captures Poole's rambunctious essence instead of carefully mimicking his music. There's a simpatico link in that both were youthful hell-raisers. Wainwright survived to write such cautionary tales about alcohol as "White Winos," "Wine With Dinner" and the "The Drinking Song." Poole, sadly, drank himself to death.
Wainright and Thompson are simpatico personas as well. While the Loud & Rich Tour is their first extended, co-billed collaboration, they are old pals — and tennis buddies. Wainwright recently issued the following warning:
Rich aka The Human Fly
What a talent! Quite a guy!
Yet on our tour I'll kick your ass
On surfaces hard, clay, or grass!"
Thus it shall be written. Fans can expect many more such verbal jousts amidst brilliant music when these accomplished cut-ups take the stage.
- Richard Thompson's five decades in music span his early years with Fairport Convention and prolific solo career.