RT in Cincinnati - 1 November 1996

OK here is my article. Thanks to all of you who requested I post it.

Tonight's the night for RT in Cincinnati. I'll let you know what happened.

Rock's Best Kept Secret by Greg Hatfield

Attempting to categorize British musician Richard Thompson does the artist a disservice. He is a musical chameleon -- balladeering folkie one minute, blistering rock and roller the next. His songwriting ranges from introspective soul-searching to venomous spews with biting wit. He is a master lyrical storyteller, containing enough hooks and dominant guitar work, that the question remains: Why isn't this guy popular?

The answer depends on where you look. In April of this year, Thompson released his 40th album, you?me?us?, a two disc set featuring acoustic songs on one disc and electric songs on the other. On September 4, he hit the road for some 47 shows in support of that album and comes to Cincinnati, Friday, November 1, for a 7:30 p.m. show at Bogart's.

Richard Thompson may just be the most popular best-kept secret in music today. His songs are covered by Bonnie Raiit, Emmylou Harris and K.T. Oslin. He has been the focus of two tribute albums. His, and ex-wife and former partner Linda's, album, Shoot Out the Lights, is critically acclaimed. Rolling Stone named it in their top ten of the 100 greatest albums ever.

He's a cult artist with enough of a cult following to support a cottage industry. A biograpghy, Strange Affair, already out in England, has been picked up by publishing powerhouse, Simon & Schuster, and will be available in the U.S. in February, 1997. The Richard Thompson Internet discussion group now boasts 830 subscribers in 20 countries. Thompson is aware of his following on the Web, making references to it during his shows and dedicating songs. His concert at the House of Blues in Hollywood on September 30 was broadcast live over the Internet and Thompson participated in a live chat prior to the show. He is the subject of two newsletters, Hokey Pokey in England and Flypaper in the United States.

He is one of the most heavily bootlegged artists. Concert tapes spring up before the tour is even over. Other bootlegged live performances and studio work, from all periods of his career, remain a staple of "import" catalogs. The number of available boots rivals such bootlegged superstars as Bob Dylan and Neil Young for volume. Ironically, the popular success that has eluded Thompson in the mainstream has been acheived through the black market. His cult of buyers, barely making a blip in the Billboard charts, snap up every scrap of Thompson material, blowing the roof off of the bootlegger's charts, thus guaranteeing the continuation of product. Thompson is trying to beat the boots, however, by releasing, in limited mail-order only editions, live CDs of recent concert appearances. Last year's acoustic Live at Crowley was a direct response to the boot and next month, Live in Seattle, from 1994's electric tour is being made available.

The majority of Richard Thompson albums are still in print, thanks in major part to Rykodisc Records, a huge milestone reserved for only the biggest artists. Beginning with his 1960's band's first album, the self-titled Fairport Convention (itself the subject of cult status), Thompson began to gain prominence as an excellent lead guitar player and songwriter.

Fairport was a leader on the British folk scene, scoring with Dylan covers and making a star out of their lead singer, Sandy Denny. Their major hit, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" cemented their popularity. Fairport Convention is still active today, in various configurations and recently played in Dayton.

Thompson left the band in 1972 and his first solo effort, Henry the Human Fly, was vilified as "the worst selling album of all-time in Warner Brothers history." In 1974, he teamed up with with his then-wife, Linda, a former singer in Elton John's band and Fairport, for seven albums, including the afore-mentioned Shoot Out the Lights. Linda, herself long regarded as a vocalist, recently released a compilation album, Dreams Fly Away, containing mostly Thompson compositions.

In 1983, Richard Thompson began his solo projects in earnest and has since practically released an album a year. He wrote the soundtrack for the movie Sweet Talker in 1994 (now available in video cut-out bins everywhere). In 1995, the three-CD set, Watching the Dark -- featuring selections from his days with Fairport Convention and Linda, as well as outtakes, live performances and unreleased tracks -- was released.

Apparently, there is no shortage of Thompson material. Richard has said many times in interviews that he has a logjam of albums just waiting to see the light of day. His next release, aside from the mail-order CD, is called Industry, recorded with bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) and explores industrial England.

On his current tour, he reunites again with Danny Thompson on bass, Pete Zorn on mandolin and sax, and Dave Mattacks, from Fairport Convention, on drums. His concerts bridge the totality of his career -- he often plays songs from all of his different periods.

So Richard Thompson remains the brilliant artist that is still waiting at the altar. He is at the epicenter of derisive artists being discovered all around him that receive the majority of airplay on AAA radio. His songwriting originality and musicainship make him without peer in an artform where cookie cutter workmanship is heralded and rewarded.

In an interview for USA Today, Shawn Colvin, who performed on the Thompson tribute album, Beat the Retreat, said, "Richard Thompson is a great artist, but that's kind of not enough right now." To the hundreds of thousands of Thompson's cult devotees, it'll do.

Greg Hatfield