When you’ve had a career such as Richard Thompson’s, supreme songwriter and guitar virtuoso, with many fellow musicians as fans, your 70th Birthday bash, of course, has to be held at the Royal Albert Hall. On 30th September, a star-studded line-up joined Thompson to play many of his songs along with some of his old favourites and adding a few of their own. Compèred by Thompson’s youngest son Jack – a self-described “Spawn of Thompson”- the night was split into two parts with the first half loosely following Thompson’s musical history in a chronological fashion.
More than three hours of music kicked off with the Richard Thompson trio – which, as with all good trios, has more than three members – playing ‘Storm Won’t Come’ from last year’s ‘13 Rivers‘ album before a variety of guests took us down memory lane. First off was Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers (who went to school with Thompson) to perform, ‘Tobacco Road’, a staple of their school band set list. Cornwell then delivered The Stranglers’ ‘Peaches’ followed by his own ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Hollywood’. Next was Ashley Hutchings, as they moved into the “proto Fairport” part of Richard’s career. Simon Nicol was also due to appear but, in Thompson’s words, he had been, “Thomas Cooked.” Taking Nicol’s place on acoustic guitar was Blair Dunlop, son of Ashley Hutchings and Judy Dunlop. They played the traditional song ‘Blues In A Bottle’, before Blair was replaced by Richard’s grandson, Zak Hobbs, for ‘Jack of Diamonds’.
As the first half continued, guests included Bob Mould, Marc Ellington, Dave Mattacks and Danny Thompson. Kate Rusby sang the Thompson-penned ‘Withered and Died’ while Eliza Carthy and Alistair Anderson performed ‘The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie’. Mary Waterson sang ‘Fine Horseman’, written by her mother, Lal Waterson before Eliza Carthy rounded up the first half with ‘Valerio’, alone and unaccompanied, and ‘Hug You Like A Mountain’ – her own song for which she was joined by Richard, Zak Hobbs, Teddy Thompson and Alistair Anderson.
At the interval, it struck me that, although the songs were beautifully sung and the musicians were as good as you would expect from the stunning line-up, there was not enough Richard Thompson.
When the second half started, the audience (which by my reckoning was made up of 75% men, with at least 66% of them being of a certain age – I not only felt young, but also happy by the queues for the ladies’ being shorter than those for the gents for a change) started to liven up. The first song was the firm fan favourite ‘Beeswing’ greeted with enthusiasm as the audience sang along, adding that sense of occasion I felt the first half was lacking. This was followed by Thompson and Alistair Anderson performing ‘Madame Bonaparte’ -referred to by compere Jack as a,“master class”. Then came one of my highlights of the evening – ‘Persuasion’ – a duet with Thompson’s eldest son Teddy. Their voices worked beautifully together on this song, the live version somehow injecting even more emotion into it than on the record. If the applause was to be believed – the loudest of the night so far – I am not alone in this feeling. The string of Thompson-penned songs continued with Christine Collister singing ‘Ghosts In the Wind’, joined by Dave Mattacks on drums and Danny Thompson on double bass, and then ‘Sweetheart On The Barricades’ – which also saw Eliza Carthy return on fiddle.
A celebration of Richard Thompson is not complete without at least one Sandy Denny song, and this did not disappoint. Olivia Chaney, along with the classic Fairport rhythm section – with Blair Dunlop once again in Simon Nicol’s stead – sang ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’. Olivia’s voice is great and her performance did the song perfect justice. A little light entertainment followed as Olivia moved to the keyboards and – after receiving a little assistance to change the setting from organ to piano – she sang her own song ‘House on the Hill’.
The next guest was Maddy Prior with the traditional folk ballad ‘Sheath and Knife’, before Richard and Teddy provided harmonies for the Cyril Tawney song ‘Grey Funnel Line’. The Rails, (Kami Thompson – Richard and Linda’s youngest and her husband James Walbourne) were next, joining Richard for ‘Keep Your Distance’, before the rest of the family – Zak, Teddy and Linda – came together for ‘That’s Enough’ from the 2014 ‘Thompson Family‘ album. Another of my highlights, it was great to see Linda Thompson on stage singing, with Kami and Teddy on either side with an arm around her. The applause from the audience was the loudest so far, so I can’t be alone in my joy at the sight.
Judith Owens was next up with her rendition of ‘Cry Me A River’, before a complete change of pace came in the form of Derek Smalls,“formally of the band formally known as Spinal Tap” singing ‘She Put the Bitch in Obituary’, for which Owens covered her beautiful ball gown with a leather jacket in order to provide keyboard accompaniment. I’m not sure if this was a hit with everyone in the audience, but it definitely made a large portion of them laugh, and the sight of Jack Thompson headbanging on stage definitely bought a smile to my face.
The night was returned to its previous footing by Loudon Wainwright III, who joined Richard for a rendition of his own ‘Swimming Song’ before they performed ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’. If Loudon Wainwright wasn’t enough, the second half was drawn to a close by ‘Dimming of the Day’ and ‘Fat Old Sun’ performed by David Gilmour.
The inevitable encore found everyone, including Muna Mascolo – Linda and Richard’s oldest child, who had not featured in the main set – on stage singing Fairport Convention’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’. Everyone on stage was smiling, and there was a great party atmosphere. When they finished, the audience was left wanting more.
All in all, it was a great night and with such a stellar line-up, more than worth the price of admittance. It is of course a one-off, and whilst I found the first half a little lacking – maybe due to my age and not finding the music of Richard Thompson until about 15 years ago – I’m glad I was there. A great night was had by all. Long may Richard Thompson continue to make music and perform.
All photography by Claire Stones