So what is Richard Thompson up to these days? Aside from having a dynamite new album, for which he has been on tour, and which tour is coming here next year (with many shows already being sold out, including here in London, such that an additional show at the Royal Festival Hall had to be added)? In fact, I’m glad you asked. Because Thompson just keeps going and going. Being one of the half dozen premier songwriter/guitarists of the past four and a half decades isn’t enough. For the past several years he’s been touring with his solo “Thousand Years of Popular Music,” which really is a must-see. And tonight here he was at Cadogan Hall in London, with Philip Pickett, doing a concert of old London Broadsides—sixteenth century London street songs—called Nutmeg and Ginger—Spicy Ballads from Shakespeare’s Time. The guy just never stops.
Thompson needs little introduction, but Pickett does. He’s about Thomson’s age, but has a different, but slightly overlapping, pedigree. He’s been at the heart of early music in England for the past several decades, having run the Early Music Weekend at South Bank for the first six or seven years we were here, and then was canned or something (it’s never really been made clear). But, like Thompson, he’s indefatigable, and has been touring Britain and Europe with the New London Consort, of which he is the director and conductor, doing Purcell and Monteverdi operas, among other things. And, like Thompson, those “other things” cover a lot of ground, including over at the Globe Theatre, where Pickett has been running the group he founded (at the bequest of Sam Wanamaker), Musicians of the Globe, some of whom were there tonight, including the fabulous lutenist Lynda Space. But he’s been involved in the folk stuff as well, having been a member of the Albion Band (founded by ex-Fairporter Ashley Hutchings) in the 1970s.
And of course Pickett and Thomson have done an album together, The Bones of Old Men, a collection of dances and whatnot, mostly from the Elizabethan period, along with a bunch of old farts from Fairport, back in 1998. Produced by Joe Boyd, no less. So of course I expected this to be a great concert, and of course it was. Thomson sang a bunch of old broadsides—songs mainly composed by street musicians in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, mainly in London. All written before the Mayflower sailed. Music was becoming a regular part of living at that point—London (and every English city, in fact) had scores of street musicians, many of whom were employed by the cities themselves. But it wasn’t just street musicians. Byrd and later Purcell wrote lots of songs based on what they heard in the streets—the flow of musical information was incredibly fluid, even then.
As Pickett pointed out in his concert notes, many of these were long, and many political, and quite a few nothing but outright bawdy. So we heard a range of topics, ranging from sad love songs, including one based on Dido and Aeneas, to more “moral” songs like the one based on the Faust legend. These were all bracketed by more upbeat instrumental numbers in between Thompson’s vocals, including quite a few bits in which some of the roots of American bluegrass could be detected. At the end of the concert someone yelled out “When will the album be coming out” or something, and there was a burst of applause. The encore was Thompson’s “One Door Opens,” from Old Kit Bag, which, I have to say, sounds great accompanied by a lute, recorder, bandora and bass viol.
Well, I hope there is an album—it will go right next to all those other oddities Pickett and Thompson get up to from time to time. And I hope it’s not their last collaboration, either. Thompson is amazing, though. Really, it’s hard to think of any rock person other than Thompson who could pull this off. Sting proved, if nothing else, that he couldn’t, with that awful lute album with John Dowland songs, woefully done. Robert Plant has made a big deal of going back fifty years in American music—how about going back four hundred years in English music? Andy Summers, maybe, or Ray Davies. That’s about it. If this were Japan, Thompson would be a designated National Treasure. Long may he continue.