For Richard Thompson, breaking free from the major-label universe has been a truly liberating experience.
In the last few years, Thompson has almost become a cottage industry unto himself. He left Capitol Records in 2000. And since 2003, he's released two new studio albums, five (yes, five) live albums, three live DVDs, a film soundtrack, and his second box set -- a sprawling, five-disc retrospective that digs deep into the archives and offers up a bevy of rarities for hard-core fans and completists. Several of those live CDs cull classic performances from the 1970s and '80s, and are sold only via his Web site.
This bounty of riches amounts to manna from heaven for Thompson loyalists, who are among the most obsessive and devoted cultists in the pop-music audience. Thompson readily admits he could never be this prolific if he was still on a major. "I know there's a demand for this stuff among my fan base, and with the Internet, you can sell things to them that might not have a broad enough appeal to interest a major label," says Thompson, who comes to the Neighborhood Theatre on Oct. 26. "It's much freer, and much easier, being off of a major label and being my own boss and doing what I want. There's a ready-made market for the stuff I've released, especially the older live recordings -- and in a sense, I'm just doing what the bootleggers would otherwise be doing."
The intense loyalty of Thompson's core audience is mostly due to the fact that Thompson is one of rock's most revered guitar heroes -- but also one of its most unique.
Unlike the iconic guitar God trinity of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, Thompson's playing is not derived from the blues. A Brit of Scottish descent, Thompson became fascinated at an early age with the mournful drone of Celtic music. So he adapted that drone quality to his guitar playing, giving him a distinctive, readily identifiable sound -- especially on his full-band, Celtic-rock recordings. "That's the way I've always played, right from the beginning," says Thompson by phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he's lived for more than 20 years. "I've always just loved that sound, and I think with my family coming from Scotland, it's probably in my blood or something."
Meanwhile, Thompson's career as a touring artist has taken two concurrent tracks. One track features Thompson fronting a five-man electric band, which allows him to dig deep into his bag of guitar-hero tricks and blow the roof off of theaters and watering holes all over America and Europe. Concurrent with that track, however, is Thompson the solo-acoustic artist -- which allows him to play smaller rooms, where the increased intimacy encourages Thompson to flex his sharp, mordant wit. His onstage quips perfectly counterpoint his songs, which are often harrowing tales of ex-cons, mental patients, street drunks, losers in love, serial killers and other lost souls living on the fringe of society. (Thursday's show is one of those solo-acoustic outings.)
"I've found that making jokes is a good way to relieve the tension after singing two or three of those songs in a row," says Thompson. "It really helps the pacing of the show."
On and off since 2001, Thompson has also been performing a show that he calls "1,000 Years of Popular Music," which includes everything from 11th century Italian folk songs to English music-hall goofs to covers of tunes by more contemporary artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Squeeze, Prince and even Britney Spears. In fact, the highlight is probably his hilarious but brilliant Celtic folk take on Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again," which works both musically and satirically. In 2004, Thompson released a live 1000 Years CD and followed this year with a 1000 Years DVD that's almost twice the length of the CD.
Thompson's most recent studio effort, released in '05, was Front Parlour Ballads, an all-acoustic set that was inspired in part by "listening to more 20th century classical music," says Thompson. "There's some art-song influence, and maybe some Ravel influence. Not to make it sound too grand, but other things crept in besides British folk music."
Prior to that, Thompson's last full-band electric outing was The Old Kit Bag, in '03. On that disc, Thompson thrilled the guitar freaks when he came out swinging after several years of downplaying his astonishing chops in the studio and saving the guitar fireworks for his live performances. Throughout the disc, Thompson's signature string-bending and intensity were front and center, and he embarked on more of his fiery fretboard excursions than on any disc since 1991's Rumour and Sigh. And, not coincidentally, Kit Bag was probably Thompson's strongest record since Rumour. Indeed, before Kit Bag, that album's "Mother Knows Best" was the last time Thompson really pulled out the stops on record, as he blazed through a two-minute-long solo on that tune that is still one of the most thrilling he ever recorded.
As for the box set, titled RT -- The Life & Music of Richard Thompson, Thompson wanted it to be different than the 3-disc mini-box, Watching the Dark, that was released in 1993. And indeed it is, as it offers many previously unreleased alternate takes and rare live performances -- a few of which are more notable for their historical importance, eccentricity and collector-item status than for their sound quality. "This one is definitely not a greatest-hits package -- it's not a good introduction to what I do. But I think it's a great box set for the afficionado."
Thompson is currently in rehearsals for his next disc, due out in the spring. "It's a full-band record, with more guitar playing for the guitar nuts, and it probably sounds more British than Old Kit Bag‚" offers Thompson. "It's also a more political record -- George Bush and Tony Blair both make appearances," he adds dryly.
Being a native Brit living in America definitely does not hinder Thompson from espousing his extremely dim view of Bush, Blair and the war in Iraq. "My opinion is no different than the majority of Americans," he stresses. "The people of this country, and in Britain, were hoodwinked and bamboozled, and the sooner we're out of there, the better. And the people who started it should be impeached, and, hopefully, imprisoned."
Richard Thompson plays the Neighborhood Theatre, w / Amy Correia; Oct. 26, 8 p.m.; $25; visit www.neighborhoodtheatre.com or ring 704-358-9298 for more info.