There are 21 Richard Thompsons listed in Wikipedia, including a Conservative baronet, a racing driver and a Warner Bros animator. There is only one Richard Thompson who the sell-out crowd in The Queen’s Hall gathered to see however: the one who Wikipedia disambiguates with the word ‘musician’. There may be 21 Richard Thompsons of note, but only Richard John Thompson OBE is fit to be labelled a musician. He’s not just any old musician either, but one whose mantelpiece must be formed out of steel girders to accommodate the weighty gongs that have been awarded to him over the years, including an Orville H. Gibson award for best acoustic guitar player, an Ivor Novello award and a BBC lifetime achievement.
Ultimately, it is what Thompson does with his acoustic weapon of choice that is of concern to the audience in The Queen’s Hall. Awards might catch the light in a pleasing manner, but aurally they don’t offer much. All the accolades in the world won’t help when stood under the harsh glare of the stage lights, gazing into the dark void where the audience is sat expectantly, waiting to be entertained and enthralled. Thompson has played here before – over the years, he seems to have played everywhere before – yet he still relishes the challenge of walking onto the stage and proving himself all over again.
Clad in his trademark Soviet beret, black shirt and matching trousers, Richard Thompson looks tired; frail even, but he caresses his guitar with a steady hand and approaches the mic with the authority of a man who has been owning venues for decades. Some of those in attendance will have experienced their first kiss while listening to the guitarist, back in his Fairport Convention days; others may have been conceived to him. Thompson has been on this planet for 63 years and he hasn’t wasted a single one of them.
Those familiar with their folk history will already be aware of who Richard Thompson is and why he is revered by so many. If you’ve yet to hear of the man, odds are it’s because you politely have no interest in the oeuvre of Thompson and every other singer-songwriter who can be lazily lumped into the folk category.
Songs such as ‘Crawl Back’ shimmer in a haze of gentle effects, though for the most part Thompson relies on nothing more than a flurry of fingerpicking to complement his stark vocals. ‘Oh she was a rare thing, fine as a bee's wing, so fine a breath of wind might blow her away,’ he sings on ‘Beeswing’. ‘Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands’ and ‘I Misunderstood’ are rendered faithfully, the Englishman’s voice taut with emotion. Then there’s 1952 ‘Vincent Black Lightning’, a classic folk anthem that’s delivered with all the dexterity but none of the weariness of a man who’s played it 1,000 times before. He’ll probably play it another 1,000 times before putting down his guitar for the last time and devoting his dotage to polishing the gongs on his mantelpiece.
When a musician is referred to as ‘a national treasure’, one’s first impulse is to run a mile. Is there a more devalued phrase in the English language? However, if you can see past the generic accolades and stock plaudits, Thompson’s intricately crafted tales will carry you all the way from Galway to Graceland. You’re only as good as your last gig in this business; based on tonight’s performance, Richard Thompson is very good indeed.