When Richard Thompson agreed to come play for the students at the private all girls high school I teach at in Middlebury, CT, I have to admit I was as surprised as I was delighted. A chapel at a small New England boarding school is not, after all, his usual venue. And though my school scraped together the best funding it could to offer him, I somehow doubt we came close to meeting his usual fee. When I asked RT later, after it was all over, why he had agreed to do the show, he said, "Because it sounded interesting." And it was, at that....
Before the show, the 192 or so girls at my school -- being fairly normal high school students with the usual range of musical tastes, ranging from Britney to the Dropkick Murphys -- had of course never heard RT's music, nor had they ever heard of him. Or, to be precise, only two students had -- the two who had been woken up at 7 am on many a Sunday morning in Maine by "Wall of Death"'s being blasted through the house by one's RT-addicted father. But, in general, RT would be playing to an audience who were not at all familiar with his music and who were, on the whole, rather skeptical that a musician they'd never heard of could be nearly as good as I swore to them he would be. So it promised to be... interesting... to see what the reactions of such an audience would be.
And, as RT chose it, the setlist itself turned out to be very interesting, mixing traditional and new music very eclectically indeed. Here, in roughly the right order [I was too stunned to jot any notes down at the time] are the songs RT played:
Outside from the Inside
How Will I Ever Be Simple Again
My Daddy is a Mummy
Sumer is Ycumen In
King of Bohemia
Bonnie St. Johnstone
Turning of the Tide
[In truth, the set would have been even more eclectic had RT remembered that he had wanted to play his version of Britney's "Oops, I Did It Again!" for them. When he realized later that he'd forgotten to play it, he joked with real regret, "oh, I'll have to go back in time..."]
And the kids' reaction?....
I can't describe how my students loved it [as Simon Tassano put it afterwards -- "All eighteen and under, and all of them screaming! Not bad!"]. Though I knew they would at the very least enjoy the performance because RT is so high energy, I was not prepared for the extremity of their reaction. They laughed so hard at every line of My Daddy is a Mummy, from "Oh my name is Amanhoetep" right through, that RT couldn't sing by the last chorus, because their reaction made him laugh too hard. Though they applauded and screamed most wildly after the faster songs, I know from things they've told me that many were most struck by some of the ballads and by the Celtic songs, by Bonnie St Johnstone in particular [one said she couldn't sleep that night because the words and tune were the most haunting she'd ever heard]. And they just loved him, thought he was funny and sweet -- as one student put it, "It was like having your favorite uncle come to visit, if your uncle also happened to be the most talented person on earth." He was wonderful with them. For instance, I had warned him in advance that he couldn't expect them to sing Shenandoah along with him as recent adult audiences have done, but that on the other hand if he wanted them to recite Chaucer's first 18 lines in middle english in unison, they wouldn't disappoint -- and it turns out he too knows that bit of the Canterbury Tales by heart. So before Sumer is Ycumen, he said, "Well, this next one is written in middle english, so don't mind the words -- though you all know some middle english, I take it?" - and he started them off, spot on and with a lovely accent, "Whan that aprille with its shoures soote..." and they all started chanting in response; he listened for a bit, and then said "very good!" -- but they kept going, and going, so he finally quipped, in mock irritation, "yes yes you're all VERY clever, but this is MY show!" They laughed delightedly; really, they couldn't have loved him more. Also, he told some interesting stories before some of the songs. Like, is it widely known that Word Unspoken is written from the perspective of a mail order bride from Chernobyl? [As soon as he said it, well of course it made sense, but I sure didn't suspect it beforehand.] Before he sang Turning of the Tide, he told them about how depressing it had been for him years ago to see aging hookers in Europe [they call that the Hooker song, just as they now call Cooksferry Queen the LSD song]. He mock-pretended he'd written Kidzz just for them [though they know he didn't, they are all still fond of the pretence and refer to it as "their" song]. RT also said they were the best audience for singing back that he'd ever had -- "much better than those weaklunged adults" -- truly, their singing on Crawl Back was very impressive stuff.
Anyway, the performance was just spectacular in every regard, better than I could have hoped. Having gotten some 55 cd's from Ed Haber beforehand to sell to the kids, I sold out every copy of Action Packed I had within ten minutes the day after the show and had to send many, many disappointed girls off to music stores in local malls with explicit instructions on which cd they want to buy [mostly that was Action Packed, but a number who declared they couldn't live without Crawl Back now know to look for the one with the lawnmower on it]. A bunch of them were VERY depressed that they couldn't buy the out of print celtic/traditional cd's, so I've sent them to hunt for Strict Tempo on ebay and the re-release of House Full on Amazon [I would tell them to buy Liege and Lief, but they have so unanimously expressed themselves as in love with his voice -- "he has the most beautiful voice I've ever heard!!" has been an almost constant refrain, somewhat to my surprise -- that I'm afraid even Sandy Denny would be a letdown for them].
So, as it turned out, it was indeed a very interesting show for all concerned. My students, a huge number of whom have gone out of their way to thank me for arranging the show, now count themselves big RT fans and have been strenuously petitioning to try to get him back for future performances. Some of their reactions have been notable, I think -- "He sang about everything that matters most to me - Northern Ireland, against corporations," one student noted in something like awe [the same student told RT after the show, "I just wanted to tell you -- you blew my everloving mind!"]. Many others seem actually angry that they've never once heard any of RT's music on the radio -- "What else are they keeping from us?", one fumed, looking suspiciously at me as if I might be holding out on some other great musicians she would also love if such secrets weren't being kept from her generation by the popular music industry ....
-- Jo Wood
English teacher, Westover School