In the pantheon of British guitarists, Richard Thompson ranks right up there with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. As a songwriter, his tunes have been recorded by artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Del McCoury and the Blind Boys of Alabama. And as a founder of the legendary British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, he has earned superstardom.
That that he’s playing theaters such as the Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio, and the 24th Street Theatre in Sacramento, Calif., rather than arenas doesn’t bother him a bit.
Rolling Stone magazine named him one of the top 20 greatest guitarists of all time, yet Thompson thinks of himself as “a songwriter rather than a guitarist,” he said in a recent telephone interview from an Ohio hotel room.
“For some reason, I feel the urge to write about things. I enjoy writing stories,” he said. “I like to bring my other skills — like guitar playing — into the songwriting arena.
“I don’t think of myself as a guitar instrumentalist. I’m an accompanist who occasionally solos.”
Part of the reason he’s not Clapton-famous, Thompson suggested, is “I don’t play a style that people immediately relate to. I don’t play blues, for example. My style is quite Celtic-influenced. It’s not immediately familiar to Americans. It’s like reggae to them — something they recognize but are not so familiar with.”
Thompson uses a “pick and fingers” technique (sometimes called “hybrid picking”), a combination style in which he plays bass notes and rhythm with a pick held between his first finger and thumb, adding melody plucking the treble strings with his other fingers.
There is a Celtic resonance in his playing and songwriting, he said. His songs by his own description are “dark, weird, perverse, with a sense of humor. The humor’s always in there, but I use a lot of irony, and irony is lost on Americans a lot of time.”
Thompson comes from the folk-song tradition of “mining disasters, haunted romances and kings killing kings,” he said. “Those are part of the song culture. That’s the way people deal with murder and incest and all that — that’s the way that feelings get expressed. That’s how people deal with it.
“This is one of the functions of music.”
One of Thompson’s most popular recordings in America is the 1982 release “Shoot Out the Lights,” with his then-wife Linda. His 1991 album “Rumor and Sigh” was Grammy-nominated. His most recent recording, released in 2007, is “Sweet Warrior.”
He’s performing two types of solo concerts, often back-to-back in the same city. One includes “songs that are current, something maybe the audience hasn’t heard before and some that go back to the ‘60s.” Classics such as “Wall of Death,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “I Misunderstood” are likely to make an appearance. If not, they surely will show up in the other format, which is an all-request show. Audience members submit their requests as they enter the theater.
“Whatever people request, I perform it,” he said. “If it’s one of mine and I just can’t remember the words, I’ll say so; or if it’s a fairly obscure Lynyrd Skynyrd tune that I don’t know, I’ll have to skip it. Otherwise, it’s whatever the audience wants. It’s just random.”
Most of the time, the requests are of the “greatest hits” variety (“Shoot Out the Lights,” “Tear-Stained Letter,” that sort of thing). “They’re mostly asking for my stuff, which is reassuring, of course, but about a quarter are asking for covers of fairly popular tunes.” His version of “Oops! ... I Did It Again” is not to be missed.
Thompson’s latest project — not yet recorded — is “Cabaret of Souls,” a work that was commissioned by the International Society of Bassists.
“You probably didn’t know there was a society of bassists, but there is,” he said, “and they asked me to write a piece for their convention.
“Typical me, instead of writing this nice little piece featuring a stand-up bass, I wrote this thing with 30 segments, 26 songs, an hour and a half long. We performed it two nights ago and the audience loved it.”
The full piece, however, requires a 10-piece string orchestra, a rhythm section and several singers. He usually performs solo..
“I like the challenge of playing solo,” he said. “I think ‘burden’ might be too harsh a word to use about one’s own music, but it is a challenge. It’s great to feel that you can just go out there on your own and perform without any help.
“It’s a very naked feeling. You have to be kind of insane to do it, I think. But if you can stand up there and entertain people for an hour and a half, that’s a very rewarding experience.”