Richard Thompson - Cardiff, St David's Hall
The premise is certainly intriguing; a journey through a millennia of western music presented by just three people in a single sitting, including time for an ice-cream break. Ironic in some respects to as the main protagonist is, as part of Fairport Convention, recognised as being the catalyst for dragging British folk music stomping and yodelling into the modern era back in the late 1960’s; iconoclasm taken full circle as the 900 years of music preceding his emergence is performed with an evident reverence. Not that this is a staid and stuffy lecture, the music may be revered but Thompson’s easy charm adds a welcome sense of fun to proceedings. From his reduction of modern peace in Europe to “an exchange of cheeses” – to his interpretation of music in the year 2050 he makes it clear that he’s here to entertain and not to harangue.
The show opens in the 12th Century with the distinctive sounds of a hurdy-gurdy, an instrument much underused in the modern-era, and continues rapidly counting down the centuries, taking in ballads, madrigals and carols, and peaking with a show-stopping vocal performance from Judith Owen in a stunning recitation of an aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The instrumentation and stage-set is sparse, only the basics are required although concessions are made to showmanship with a constantly evolving backdrop which portrays images pertinent to the era we’re briefly inhabiting. Time waits for no man though and with a rabble rousing Black-leg Miner’s song from Northumbria and a bit of Cockney knees-up music-hall we note the emergence of the working classes in popular music, and feel the chill wind of the rapid onset of the 20th Century – the century to which the entire second act is devoted.
Not being an aficionado of medieval music I never thought I’d be in a position where I find the music of the 20th disappointing, but this is certainly the case this evening. There are certainly highlights in the second set, particularly the Thompson take on Hank Williams (whom Thompson insists on claiming for the Welsh) and his interpretations of classic numbers by Abba and the Kinks, but at times, particularly during the rendition of “Friday on my Mind” one felt that one was merely watching a pub band, albeit a very competent one. A medley of Beatles hits similarly misses the spot for me and, whilst this is clearly music which Thompson adores it is hard to justify its inclusion in a set which, ultimately, places too great an emphasis on the modern era. Perhaps if more adventure had been shown in the choice of modern music to feature things may have been more interesting; although it is admittedly hard to picture this trio attempting to tackle Public Enemy’s Fight The Power or Crass’ Banned from the Roxy. On balance you can’t fault the ambition of the project, a performance of 1000 years worth of varying musical genres, all seamlessly delivered with just an acoustic guitar, drums and a piano, is astonishing, and for 900 years he had me enthralled. Shame about the 20th Century though – perhaps the devil doesn’t have all the best music after all?