It’s hard to figure the lack of American commercial success for Richard Thompson. I have heard him describe it as, “a bit unlucky” or “laziness on our (R.Thompson’s band) part.” Not touring when they should have, not caring to make the same record twice, and no self-promotion seem like excuses filed by record executives. For the record, Richard Thompson’s songwriter peers include the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Leonard Cohen and the British teams of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. You may think that’s quite an elite class, but finding guitar player contemporaries is an even tougher assignment. His membership to Rolling Stone’s top 20 guitarists of all time list solidifies him as another critically acclaimed/commercially overlooked artist.
Richard Thompson is one of those rare musicians whose talent has only matured with age. Thompson began his career in his teens, songwriting and playing guitar with the Fairport Convention. Still in his teens, he left to embark on a solo career and began to make the first of over forty albums, including solo and duo work with his wife (at the time) Linda. The list of accolades is long and distinguished, including a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award. His 20+ years as a solo artist has culminated with a who’s who list of artists that have covered his songs, including Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and Del McCoury. This year he assumed the position of Artistic Director for London’s Meltdown Festival.
Dream Attic is Richard Thompson’s latest release in what seems to be a never-ending attempt to show the world who is the top living songwriter/guitarist. Because of his love for live performance over the grind of studio time, Dream Attic delivers 13 new songs in a live setting, mostly taken from performances at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. By focusing on the energy of performing in front of fans, instead of the studio sheen, Thompson’s songwriting message and guitar playing are brought to the forefront of the listener’s pleasure. The Black Crowes used this same approach in recording Before the Frost…Until the Freeze at Levon Helm’s Barn. It is also a comfort to know that none of the songs were cut to fit in the, “radio friendly format.”
The undeniable chemistry between Thompson and one of the most accomplished bands of his career (Michael Jerome on drums, Taras Prodaniuk on bass, multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn, and Joel Zifkin on electric violin and mandolin) shined through in each of his seven West Coast shows. Richard Thompson’s idea that, “it’s only when musicians play in front of an audience that something interesting happens”, certainly holds true in these best of the best recordings from the tour.
All of the tracks have the unmistakable Richard Thompson sound, with his deep Scottish vocals and impeccable guitar work. Beginning with his commentary on the financial meltdown, “The Money Shuffle” shows the band’s rockin’ side right off the bat. “Among the Gorse, Among the Grey” is a beautiful British Isles ballad that could easily be interpreted as his feelings for the record industry. The vision of what the world does to dreamers is laid out as Thompson sings, “…they sucked the joy from his beating heart, washed his eyes with rue. Now come, they said, come to the world we made for you.” “Haul Me Up” brings back the steady rockin’ beat and provides an excellent example of Richard Thompson’s musical prowess. Just as the listener begins to relate to the thoughtful lyrics of a soul’s yearning, Thompson shreds through a solo with ease and then back to the call for help.
The rest of the ballads on “Dream Attic” expertly deal with the honesty of day to day life, complete with love (“If Love Whispers Your Name”), loss (“Stumble On”, “A Brother Slips Away” and uncomfortable situations (“Burning Man”, “Crimescene”, “Big Sun Falling in the River”).
What Richard Thompson album would be complete without classic Celtic stories and traditional instruments such as the Periwhistle? The Celtic version of “You’re so Vain” is brought out in “Here Comes Geordie” as Thompson sings, “Girls all love him, think he is the end. Boys all say, the mirror’s his best friend.” “Demons in Her Dancing Shoes” provides a great contrast between the love of his life and the rough Chapel Street. In the vain of “Long Black Veil”, “Sidney Wells” is a classic blues/celtic story of Sidney Wells killing of Cheryl; complete with a murder, trial and conviction.
While Dream Attic may not be the most innovative or breathtaking album from Richard Thompson, it is still head and shoulders above most of the albums being released today. There’s also a deluxe version of the album available, with all acoustic versions of the tracks. The acoustic songs are strong enough to hold up on their own, however, the main album provides the energy and atmosphere the songs richly deserve. No matter the format, “Dream Attic” is an album showcasing a man whose prolific songwriting career is overshadowed only by his incredible guitar talent.