At a live Richard Thompson concert, a fan yelled out words that aren't uncommon at such gatherings, words to the effect that Thompson easily outclasses Eric Clapton when it comes to guitar skill. Thompson, affable, gracious and ever modest about his talents, responded kindly: "We don't speak ill of our fellow countrymen," he said.
Such is the low-key approach to the musical high road that the masterful Thompson takes, singing quietly while wielding a big axe. In this, his first true studio release since 1999's Mock Tudor, the veteran Thompson offers up a charmingly understated mixed bag of varied styles and songs with the finesse and grace that makes him dearly loved, if not quite a popular superstar.
That Thompson has not been able to deliver superstar sales numbers is one factor behind his switch from Capitol to independent spinART. But regardless of the label, the music continues to shine. Thompson is more comfortable than ever with his musical abilities and songwriting craft, and you hear the experience and the confidence on every track.
The Old Kit Bag is produced by John Chelew, who has taken a similar approach to what he did with John Hiatt, allowing the simple charms of a live performance to come through in the studio. This is minimal Thompson, backed with only the sounds of a trio of close musical friends, most particularly the brilliant expertise of veteran bassist Danny Thompson, drumming by Michael Jerome, and vocalist Judith Owen adding the kinds of female harmonies that make Thompson's songs work best (e.g., the work of Linda and Richard Thompson, or even Sandy Denny's additions during Fairport Convention). Other than a few select instrumental overdubs, the CD does reflect the feel of an intimate, live show.
Thompson has always wanted people to come to his music without prejudice; he wants to be liked for his songs. And while other musicians continue to discover his work, cover his songs, and praise his expertise, there remains a large part of the public unaware of the prolific Thompson, even after a career spanning 25 albums (and six more if you count Fairport Convention) and several decades' worth of music.
Yet with 12 new songs that come in at just under an hour, the feeling is that the prolific veteran has nothing to prove to anyone. He seems more at ease and this is reflected in the songs, most of which were composed in the past two years. They are grouped into two chapters: the first six songs collectively are "The Haunted Keepsake", the second six are "The Pilgrim's Fancy", but no central theme seems to tie things together -- these are individual stories and songs, each a separate gem of sorts, perhaps best summed up by Thompson's own subtitle for the CD: unguents, fig leaves, and tourniquets for the soul.
The epic "Gethsemane" opens the proceedings, building slowly into a grinding blues song of memory and lost innocence, discussing generations that grow from playing war games as boys into soldiers and real wars with the promise to be something fine: "Now there's a pain in your head puts lead in your shoes / Better get it seen to, it's going to be bad news / How did the perfect world get so confused / O Gethsemane."
"Jealous Words" continues the blues feel, another example of how less is more when it comes to Thompson's guitar prowess. The guitar is an extension of Thompson, his feelings and moods and voices, and his fills are subtle and masterful, akin to an artist who can dab a bit and improve the overall picture, rather than one who uses a wide brush to fill in spaces. While the interplay with Judith Owen is wonderful (Bonnie Raitt might want to cover this one), the real star here is Thompson's magical guitar.
"I'll Tag Along" is another fun song to add to the familiar Thompson canon, a self-professed third wheel who absolves himself of responsibility by hanging in the back, invisible. Again, the guitar sings every bit as much as Thompson. Similarly, "She Said It Was Destiny" should find itself included as a new favorite of devoted fans. It has the classic Thompson sound (courtesy of Owen's backing vocals and Thompson's own guitar), and deals again with familiar ground, a destined love that's perhaps not quite in the stars just yet.
A touching ballad of winning storytelling, "A Love You Can't Survive" is the remembrances of a peace volunteer who killed a man, served his time, moved drugs, and now has got his house on the mountain and his choice of women, yet always thinks of that one woman from the past: "There's a love you can't survive, and it burns you up inside."
The lovely vocals and harmonies of Judith Owen are on display with the traditional-sounding "One Door Opens", trading on the allure of traditional Celtic folk music. Again, Richard Thompson along with rhythm section Danny Thompson on bass and Michael Jerome on drums display their skills in mastering another style.
The delicate minimal yet epic ballad "First Breath" is a highlight here. The two Thompsons show their expertise, Danny by holding it together with his stand-up bass, and Richard with his delightful guitar finesse. While his voice sings a beautiful celebration of the mature love of survivors, his subtle guitar tones and accents truly make the song uniquely his own. This is a man whose instrument sings out in a way that is never overdone.
The two of them also show their respective skills on the jazzy blues piece "I've Got No Right to Have It All." Thompson shows he can handle jazz and blues adeptly, with fluid guitar playing that marks subtle points within silences, smoothly, expertly and easily. This is a tale of a man losing his dream love to another, bemoaning that fact and also knowing he's got no right to be selfish: "I wish you well and darling keep in touch / And if he loves you, I hope he loves you as much / It's just my fantasy / You leaving him for me / I've got no right to have it all."
"Pearly Jim" is the story of a man who loses it all to the unsavory title character, "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen" is a song about throwing out the past and starting anew for the sake of a new love. One interesting surprise lyrically is "Outside of the Inside," allegedly capturing the viewpoint of the Taliban toward the West. Thompson (a devout Muslim) sees the faults in judging books by their covers, exposing the ludicrous dismissal of giants of science, music, literature, and art by such extremist thinking.
The lovely poignant closer "Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne" talks about the comfort music brings to many, even those with empty hearts with loves gone wrong: "And sometimes you never connect with a song / 'Till it's telling the way that you feel / Putting words to your story, all the pain and the glory / How can it be written so real."
Over the years, Thompson has written many such songs that have brought comfort to his listeners. While perhaps destined never to be a superstar, at age 54, he seems more comfortable than ever with his own skills and talents. The Old Kit Bag is an aural delight, capturing those varied talents and showing that less can be more. This skilled singer/songwriter and amazing guitarist remains a classic that grows better over time, and his high standards are reflected in the works he puts forth.
These 12 songs capture moods and slices of lives in ways that are remarkably tasteful and restrained. The simple arrangements and clean production serve the songs well, and Thompson remains a clever lyricist and storyteller, unafraid of poetic phrases that complement his incredibly agile guitar phrasings.
The Old Kit Bag may never get the kind of exposure that will win over masses of new fans to the RT bandwagon, but for those who already familiar with the man's guitar genius and musical legacy, the good news is that his excellence continues unabated.