Sep 162015

Richard Thompson returned to Aberdeen Music Hall, and as they say, ‘he owned it’. Biased devotee Suzanne Kelly reviews. Photographs by Julie Thompson.

It’s always a treat when Richard Thompson comes to town.  The Music Hall lobby was filled with fans before the show, speculating on what he might play, and comparing notes on when they’d last seen him.

Richard Thompson Music Hall (3) I only found out that The Rails were opening on the night; I’d long wanted to see them live.

Richard’s daughter Kami Thompson and her husband James Walbourne are giving us pure folk music, beautifully arranged with haunting harmonies and beautiful playing. You’d expect no less though.

They explain their new CD has been delayed, or they’d have it for sale tonight.

Happily, you can get more info on The Rails and their CD here.

They seem relaxed and seem to be enjoying it – but it can’t be easy opening up when your father – or father-in-law is basically a living benchmark.

“We still keep falling for the same old lies. Times are tough, times are tough, but that’s enough.”

Thompson opens with the rousing call to protest song ‘That’s Enough’. He explains it’s from the family album, and that he intended it for Occupy Wall Street but ‘was about a year too late’ with it. The night’s going to be filled with astonishing music, but a piece like this reminds you that aside from the 200 mile per hour riffs, haunting acoustic melodies, straightforward honest rock, it’s not just the guitar you come for, it’s the writing.

You have to love the directness and simplicity of a piece like this, but when it’s performed with harmonies supplied by his daughter and son-in-law filling the Music Hall, you remember what live performance at its best is.

Richard Thompson Music Hall (5)Genuinely, the impact of this song as performed was immense. I hope someone’s going to get a recording of this piece with all three musicians. Genetics. The stuff that gives you a family of Bushes or Kardashians. Or, if you’re really, really lucky, a family of Thompsons.

Now that we’re all riled up and ready to start a protest there and then, the music is taking us elsewhere. ‘All Buttoned Up’ leads with its uptight staccato tension leads into folky ‘Sally B’.

We hear a new piece, ‘Broken Doll’ – slow, haunting, touch of menace – in the way Richard makes wholly his own. As he does.

‘Al Bowlly’s in Heaven’ is introduced and explained by Richard. It’s the tale of a veteran who feels forgotten (lack of support for veterans sadly is still a huge issue and the UK fails its service people badly). The protagonist, a down-on-his-luck veteran remorsefully muses on the death of his musical idol. Al Bowlly’s gone to heaven, but our veteran is in limbo.

‘Guitar Heroes’ is an amazing voyage through the styles of the artists who inspired Richard including Les Paul and Chuck Berry. In this piece, the guitar tech is brought on to provide acoustic rhythm guitar support. “Sorry it’s for the same money,” Richard tells him.

The song is an extraordinary piece seeing Richard channel Les Paul to such a degree that I get teary; it was just like listening to Paul again in person like I did, enrapt, over 25 years ago.

To play this song, jumping in and out of styles, is a phenomenal workout. Everyone in the audience is loving the exhilarating, perfect work; it gets massive applause. I’m exhausted for them by this point; but they’re keeping on.

Clearly no one’s going to get onto a bill with Thompson if they’re not the business, but the bass and drums are such you’d have to go far and wide to find talents anything like these. I’ve heard percussionist Michael Jerome before touring with Thompson, but tonight he’s absolutely on fire.

Richard Thompson Music Hall (7)The range of techniques; the variety of the playing, the expressiveness is on particularly great form.

If it seemed like, if Thompson was channelling Les Paul, then Jerome was channelling Krupa and Bonzo.

A solo he’s got about halfway through the night has Davey Faragher making his bass speak like I’ve never heard anyone do before. Other than when his bass takes the lead, it’s always just right – never dominating, always creatively underlining; always felt. We’re liking this line up an awful lot.

The guitar solos exceed expectations. Maybe he has six or seven fingers? How’s he moving that fast? Why did they call Clapton ‘Slowhand?’ A few frivolous thoughts like that come quickly to mind and go. The greatest metal lead guitar players would have a hard time doing this material justice. The music and the material has me thinking and feeling some wonderful things; I’m finding this exhilarating, battery-recharging, and empowering. And I want to go and protest things even more.

Then he slows it all down with If Love Whispers Your Name ‘next time I promise I will be ready, ready to move when the clouds roll apart

It ends too soon. Afterwards, over a quick drink or two (the road manager is celebrating his 60th birthday – though he seems more like 20 to me), Richard’s got an effortless nonchalant demeanour; ‘down to earth’ doesn’t even quite do it justice; he’s just being a top bloke.

What others said:

Gemma Louise Cook said:

“it was a fantastic night and a real treat to be there – RT Electric Trio and The Rails gained two more very enthusiastic fans in Scott and I Thursday night.”

Portrait artist Keith Byres said:

“Blistering performance! Richard Thompson is a musician who doesn’t believe he’s a guitarist…. He just knows!!!!! This is true art!!!”

and Shaun Young said:

“great performance loved the new album too. enjoyed the rails too. great vocal. , the drummer from the electric trio was incredible couldn’t take my eyes off some of his drum beats very impressive.”

On a personal note:

Richard Thompson Music Hall (2)There was this particular point, maybe it was a solo early on in the proceedings, but I realised that something was missing – then I realised that someone was missing. Her name was Ruth MacPherson; she loved Richard’s music, and one year I was going to take her along, but on the night she was just too ill from her fight with cancer to make it. She’d have loved being here tonight.

Most musicians gracefully sign photographs and pose for photos as if they were an exhibit; I generally try to avoid asking them for any such favours when I could just be talking with them.

On that long-ago night though, I got Richard to sign a backstage pass or some such for Ruth. I slipped it under her door one day with a copy of ‘Electric’. She was ecstatic. I wished she was here.

I also got slightly teary like a silly girl when Richard’s ‘Guitar Heroes’ got to the Les Paul section. You try not to be disappointed over the many ‘would have/should have/could have’ moments. Still, the last time I had the opportunity to hear Paul play, I got conscripted against my will into something I didn’t want to do instead.

‘I’ll just go see him play next time’ I thought. There never was a next time, and there won’t be one. Maybe I finally learnt my lesson about following my instincts and appreciating what is available in the here and now. I’d like to hope so. But when I closed my eyes, it was just like being back in Fat Tuesday’s, sitting a few feet away from Les, and hearing those golden tones that no one else can match (Richard did it though).

On a less maudlin note, I would have liked to hear ‘Fergus Lang’ at the Music Hall, like Thompson did last year. That was the first time I’d seen it live, and I’ll try and make sure I see Richard perform it again. I hope RT realises that for a good number of people, that song is pure tonic (Trump not being one of them).

Jan 302015

TV Smith is about to tour Germany with the UK Subs, and looks set to spend most of 2015 on the road as per usual. The recent album ‘I Delete’ contains all the observation on society you’d expect and is doing well. He continues to write his tour diaries; the latest is Book Of The Year, another candid account of a year touring, warts – lots of warts – and all. In between dates, merchandising, and admin, he talks with Suzanne Kelly.

 The Warm Up.

24_Credit Steve White

TV Smith Live – Credit: Steve White.

The Adverts dissembled a mere thirty something years ago, but Tim Smith doesn’t seem to have stopped touring or writing since. Before we speak, I watch a particular video of ‘I Delete’ again that I particularly like. The song speaks to me of our surveillance-happy society, personal memory overload, and the little acknowledged fact that sometimes the camera does lie or can be made to lie.

Smith’s vocals vary from quietly controlled but edgy to powerfully angry. ‘I Delete’ is the title track on the latest album – you can pick it up here as well as the tour diaries.

Around nine years ago he began publishing his tour memoirs; there are five books out now.

Aberdonians may be interested to know the latest one ‘Book of the Year’ closes with his date at the Moorings in December 2013 and his meeting Fred Wilkinson, Hen, Flash, and Flash’s sick parrot. The diary entries provide an insight into a life spent in music with a matter-of-fact humour and plain speaking, direct prose.

It’s perhaps a bit of a paradox, Smith’s music can convey such anger and frustration, yet he keeps his calm and keeps his head in situations that would tax anyone else to breaking point and beyond. For those who don’t know, life on the road for any musician is hardly one glamorous adventure after another.

Smith’s put up with late-cancelled shows, vehicle breakdowns, freezing cold hotels, disappearing sound people, kipping on floors, lack of edible food, lack of inedible food, and on more than one occasion amazing rudeness, daftness, incompetence and/or a mix of all these. If you wonder why he bothers, he’s written five engaging tour diaries that spell it out.

The Main Act

5_Credit_Minna Waring

Credit: Minna Waring

I call Tim; he’s at home after 4 UK dates with a luxurious two days to relax “surrounded by boxes of merchandise” before he joins the UK Subs European tour.

I tell him Fred Wilkinson’s tried to get Atilla the Stockbroker down here; and we both hope Tim can make it back to Aberdeen sometime soon.

He’s friendly and polite – he always seems to be.

I will say he sounds a little tired; he’s for one thing answered pretty much the same questions in interviews for 30+ years.

Added to that, his schedule would make anyone else exhausted.

We briefly talk about the phases the music business goes through, and I suggest that anyone who wants to have a career in music on their own terms is managing their career themselves.

“It’s not that far from the way punk started.” He explains.

“it’s the DIY ethic. Right back when that’s how it was. The original punks are older and smarter now. You did what you wanted to do then; that made it new and special. Gradually that DIY spirit got consumed by the industry – people see how terrible the business is now.”

We fairly naturally move to the subject of the ubiquitious TV talent shows and what that’s doing to new music and the more unusual artist.

“It’s an entertainment industry; it’s not about the music. It’s not like the ‘60s where there was at least the pretence of pushing good music.” 

I ask about this new tour he’s to start with the Subs.

“I’m on a never ending tour,” [ which of course he is now I think about it a bit more]

“Another thing that’s changed – you put a record out, went on tour, did nothing for a bit, then did another album and then the record company put you out again. I do 130 dates a year. The subs tour is a bit different. 5 weeks on the trot. For most of the rest of the year it’s 4 or 5 dates here, a trip to Finland or Switzerland, then back to the UK.”

I’m thinking about his accounts of cars breaking down in the middle of nowhere, of vans laden with gear with flat tires on the way to shows, getting lost on the way to clubs, cancelled trains, planes and automobiles. Then, as often as not, the problems start when he gets to a venue – no PA, missing engineers, strange people, malfunctioning equipment – it’s enough too give anyone nightmares.

‘How do you keep your cool on the road?’ – I genuinely wonder. I think of artists I’d worked with in the past who’d get threatening if their dressing room wasn’t to their liking.

“When you set your mind to do something and it becomes increasingly obvious there will be obstacles.. equinamity takes over and you can either just get on with it, or moan and give up. There is a tendency to start moaning and whinging but then the atmosphere gets even worse. It is hard; it is soul destroying and it is irritating. 

“But you have to try in retrospect to see the funny side. Re-writing what happens later is therapeutic. When the van’s broken down and it’s 25 degrees below zero in Finland and you wonder how you’ll get to the show, it’s not fun at the time. But if you lack confidence in how to achieve what you want to do, you’ll just sit and home and become a bedroom artist.”

3_Credit_Anne Schelhaas-Wöll

Credit: Anne Schelhaas-Wöll

His music has touched on virtually every modern social ill I can think of – Lies (senseless, cruel animal experimentation), March of the Giants (which I always associate with Trump), Straight and Narrow (our ‘justice’ and ‘class’ systems) and so on.

‘I Delete’ speaks to me of our CCTV surveillance society (it’s no secret I don’t think Aberdeen Inspired should track us by our mobile phones, by imagery and know how long we spend in any shop – it’s a blatant infringement of our privacy all in the name of ‘footfall’ and marketing – but is a handy tool for anyone wishing to get our details and routines – but I digress); we are apparently the most spied on nation on earth ever.

I spout a rambling question of sorts at Tim about this new song, about writing, about social commentary.

Somehow he’s made sense of where I was trying to go:

“I’m a bit shy about describing lyrics… if I could tell you where it came from I’d be doing it all the time; it’s kind of a mysterious thing. Every now and then you get a snap of an idea, you grab it roll around with it and see if something comes out if it. It’s as much a mystery to me now as it was when I started in 1975. 

“I’m always getting people saying thing to me like ‘that would be a good idea for a song for you.’ But the ones that filter into your brain and spark something off and you get some poetry out of it is a completely different thing than someone demanding to know why ‘I’ve not written something about the aborigines yet’.”

“It’s not my ambition to correct injustice but to write poetry – if I can combine the two, then I’ve done the job.”

It’s not a matter for me of ‘if’ he can do the job of mixing social commentary and poetry – but how often he’s managed to masterfully do so over the decades. Another look at his website and I find the archives offer a list of some of his songs ranked by fans.

‘Immortal Rich’, ‘Gather Your Things And Go’, ‘Generation Y’, ‘Only One Flavour’ – all of this material ‘does the job’ of mixing the issues and concerns of a bewildering world with poetry. I can’t remember which tour diary book (it’ll be the first or the last) this quote is from, but at one point Smith recounts a fan saying to him “You sing about what we’re all thinking.”

All I can say is – absolutely.

It must be these kinds of reactions that makes TV Smith go out year after year on tour. It’s not the food or the hotels. But I ask him about touring all the same.

“You’re a bedroom artist if you don’t get out there. At the end of the day if you see that people have responded to your songs it makes the whole journey worthwhile. If I get to a gig after going through manic situations [and some of them sound very manic indeed] – that’s the fuel that keeps me going. When people go home motivated with their eyes shining you can’t ask for anything else – except maybe heat.”

I mention Fred Wilkinson and that Fred’s keen to try and get both TV Smith and Atilla the Stockbroker back to Aberdeen asap.

“I remember Fred – he gave me two Toxik Ephex CDs after Rebellion last year. Give him my love.”

I will do – Fred will be over the moon.

I mention that when we next get him up here, we’ve got a great place for him to stay near the Moorings; a luxe B&B where he can stay up and drink all night if he so wishes.

“I have stopped the staying with the friends scenario – I’ve stopped it because it becomes a non-stop party. People assume you’re the life and soul but when you’re doing it 130 times a year…”

I’m not surprised. In his diaries he seems to always be hunting out the friend of a friend he’s meant to stay with, finding that he’s got a kids’ bedroom to sleep in and the kids have been sent off elsewhere; dogs and cats barge into what little sleep he gets; and everyone expects that he can wake up, travel for hours, not eat, sound check eventually, play, socialise, merchandise, pack up, and then stay up all night drinking and talking.

One hundred thirty plus nights a year.

Before I let him get back to the mountains of work that undoubtedly await, we discuss a few upcoming festivals, and that TV Smith and the Bored Teenagers will play at Rebellion this year. They’ll do two sets; and TV will quite probably do an acoustic set as well. I’m just hoping that he’ll find time to get back up this way soon.

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