Richard Thompson’s work songs

For the past few years I have been making a pilgrimage to Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, through what are inevitably cold December rains, for solo acoustic shows by Richard Thompson. (I wrote about the trip back in 2005.) This year I picked up tickets way in advance for a Sunday evening show, figuring the traffic would be lighter than on a week night. Only later was this night declared on the calendar to be a special “theme” night, billed as a “first time ever” event: Thompson would perform “Work Songs, Ballads and Rallying Cries.” A little like his show of “1000 Years of Popular Music,” the set ranged from Renaissance ballads to punk. It was a bit rough around the edges, a rarity for this supremely skilled guitarist, but utterly engaging, and repeatedly surprising.

The show opened with Thompson’s own stirring “Time to Ring Some Changes,” and included several songs from his album “Industry,” one from his “Hard Cash” collection, and “Genesis Hall,” his Fairport Convention classic. The rest were covers — and what an eclectic collection.

I’m probably forgetting a few, but here’s what I remember: “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime”; “Minority” (Green Day); “Joshua Gone Barbados” (Rick von Schmidt); “Strange Fruit”; a hilarious 18th century song about lying, cheating merchants; a solemn, stirring anthem of the Diggers, that brief-lived collective during the English Revolution; “Get Up, Stand Up” (Bob Marley — minus the lines about Haile Selassie); “War” (Edwin Starr/Temptations); “I Ain’t Marching Any More” (Phil Ochs); “Little Boxes” (Malvina Reynolds); “Beds Are Burning” (Midnight Oil). Harmonica player George Galt accompanied on several numbers.

Thompson added a couple of updated verses to the Ochs march, placed his own spooky spin on “War,” and busted loose like a one-man rock band for the Midnight Oil number. Beyond an opening crack about the late conversion of George W. Bush to socialism, he barely alluded to the current state of the world and the woes of the economy. He really didn’t have to.

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  1. Scott Rosenberg

    No — though that’s a great one too (and indeed this whole show had a Billy Bragg-ish feel, though it may be fairer to say that Bragg sometimes displays a Thompson influence…). What Thompson sang seemed like it was an actual Digger chant or anthem of some kind from 1649.

  2. Donna

    Hi, thanks for your review. I was trying to remember some of the songs, but could only name a few. It was a great show and RT was in very good voice; it was impossible to tell he had already done two shows in the previous two nights. I enjoyed the music but I think I’ll try to catch one of the “all request” nights next time…I’m probably just a naif but the sociopolitical stuff is just too depressing!

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    On the other hand, it’s not as though RT’s own catalogue is all upbeat jingles :-)

    But the all request nights *are* great. We went to one last year.

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