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Drifting Through the Days

A folk icon looks back on 1,000 years of music.

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Richard Thompson: Digs 18th-century madrigals almost as much as he likes Britney.
  • Richard Thompson: Digs 18th-century madrigals almost as much as he likes Britney.

Richard Thompson is far too amiable to play the role of the unsung hero. But if a myth was ever ascribed to him, it might tell of a man who — when offered the choice of life as either a brilliant singer-songwriter or a guitar god — sacrificed stardom to become both.

Of course, in fairness, Thompson's four decades of impossibly stellar folk rock have hardly gone unnoticed. Critics have lauded almost every lick and lyric he's crafted along the way (in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 19 on their list of the greatest guitarists of all time), and his fellow musicians — from David Gilmour to R.E.M. — have covered his songs. Still, he's remained almost inexplicably anonymous to the masses, often reduced to little more than a quirky High Fidelity reference.

Yet, over the past 25 years, a whole new generation of dedicated music fans has gravitated toward Thompson's remarkably versatile material. Some discover him through his guitar-playing with the seminal English folk-rock band Fairport Convention. Others stumble onto his studio work with the legendary Nick Drake. Many more praise the landmark albums he recorded with ex-wife Linda — including the terrific I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out the Lights.

But out of this relative obscurity has emerged a freewheeling spirit that's helped Thompson remain as vital, distinctive, and exciting as he's been at any point in his career. At 58, he sounds better than he ever has — a perfect example of an artist refusing to rest on his laurels. "Well, I don't actually have any laurels," says Thompson, showcasing his trademark wit with a sarcastic clearing of his throat. "I'm always very dissatisfied with what I do. I always think that there are other places to go, that I can do better, and that the work can reach a higher standard.

"I suppose it's good to be a little restless," he continues. "I haven't achieved very much at all, and I'd like to achieve something. So I'm always driving myself forward. I'm always thinking, Well, there's the next project, but how about after that? Let's have another project, and another project. I'm always thinking in terms of projects. And it's just one step in front of the other. It keeps me going down the road."

One of Thompson's ongoing and particularly popular projects goes by the somewhat self-explanatory title of 1,000 Years of Popular Music. It began in 1999, when Playboy asked musicians to submit their lists of the "Greatest Songs of the Millennium." Of course, what they were really looking for was a rundown of the best songs from the past 50 years or so. Most contributors played along. Thompson, however, chose to take it literally and provided the magazine with a carefully researched list of tunes dating back to the Dark Ages.

Thompson's list was never published, but he was inspired to develop the 1,000 Years concept into a live show (which was documented on CD and DVD a couple of years back). The concert has been revamped and is now back on the road, with Thompson again accompanied by singer Judith Owen and percussionist Debra Dobkin.

This new show, says Thompson, focuses on music from about 1,000 AD on. "We did cheat a bit. [It's more] songs that we like playing, rather than songs that were really popular. But it's impossible to truly say, 'Well, here's what popular music was like.' So it is rather skewed and prejudiced. But we do take on a really wide range of music."

That includes Elizabethan tunes, madrigals, and carols from the 18th century. But there's also a huge chunk of tunes from the 1900s — "just because that's more what we and the audience are familiar with," says Thompson. "We cover Gilbert and Sullivan, and jazz, gospel, country, and, well, everything" — which means songs by the Kinks, Squeeze, and Prince. There's even an impressively unironic version of Britney Spears' "Oops! . . . I Did It Again."

As extensive as Thompson's personal reference library of the millennium canon may be, however, he says he still needed to do some digging for many of the show's golden oldies. "It's very interesting to find all these things that are kind of forgotten," he says.

"I think one of the joys of the show is to present unfamiliar music to the audience and say, 'Look, here's this kind of music from 1400 or 1800 or 1900— isn't this interesting?' And perhaps the audience will be inspired to go and find more of the same."

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