Richard Thompson, legendary folk-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter, will come to the Old Whaling Church on Thursday, June 27, for a solo acoustic show. Thompson’s career began more than 50 years ago, fusing traditional Celtic music and rock ’n’ roll with the British band Fairport Convention. He’s been making music steadily ever since, both as a solo artist and with others, gaining renown as a songwriter and guitarist. You’ve probably heard his voice on WMVY or WUMB over the years; “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is one of his biggest hits, and his song “Dimming of the Day” was covered by Bonnie Raitt and many others. This will be his first appearance on the Island, and he has an immense repertoire to draw from.
Thompson’s songwriting has firm roots in the traditional ballads of the British Isles — many of which are bleak tales — but he also grew up listening to jazz and rock ’n’ roll. The result is engaging and energetic, even when the story ends in death. (He doesn’t write bubblegum pop — but he does play a cover version of Britney Spears’s “Oops! … I Did It Again.”) His lyrics are clever, and can be whimsical or cynical, sometimes conveying a sense of hope even as they walk through dark alleys.
His guitar playing is as noteworthy as his songwriting. Rolling Stone included Thompson in its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Fitting the guitar into traditional Celtic music, as he did with Fairport, called for something beyond basic strummed chords. Although guitars are almost ubiquitous in modern folk music, but they’re not a traditional instrument in the British isles — fiddle, harp, and bagpipe go back farther there. To bring the guitar into that tradition, Thompson improvised and worked with different tunings to echo the sounds of the bagpipe or fiddle. He gets a big range of sounds out of the instrument. He plays both acoustic and electric guitars, and has been a guest or session musician on over 100 albums by a variety of artists. He often uses a hybrid picking technique, with a pick held between the thumb and forefinger while finger-picking on the higher-pitched strings of the guitar.
This concert is likely to feature songs from his latest album, 13 Rivers.” “I wrote the songs as a group to hang together,” he says. “They belong together in some way, and seem to possess a commonality since they were written in the same time and space.” He self-produced the album, and fans give it rave reviews. “The Storm Won’t Come” is the first song on the album, an energetic, driven piece that echoes the feeling of waiting for a change, the building tension before a thunderstorm. “The song references wanting to change your life — but it’s a difficult undertaking,” he says. “You have to wait for it to happen naturally. You can’t force it.”
Beyond the songs from “13 Rivers,” he will probably pull from the hundreds of songs he’s written over the past half-century, and maybe some from before that time. His “1000 Years of Popular Music” album goes back to the era when music was recorded only in human memory and with marks of ink on sheepskin. He’s a practiced performer who has learned to bring new interpretations to old songs to keep them alive over the years.
Critical acclaim for Richard Thompson has been impressive. In addition to his spot on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” he has Lifetime Achievement Awards from the BBC and the Americana Music Association. His popular ballad “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is on Time magazine’s “100 Greatest Songs” list. In 2011 he was granted an Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. The Old Whaling Church isn’t Buckingham Palace, but it should be a fitting venue for Thompson’s solo show.
Richard Thompson at the Old Whaling Church, part of the M.V. Summer Concert Series. Friday, June 27, 8 pm. Visit mvconcertseries.com for tickets.