Richard Thompson is one of those "musician's musician" kind of artists. You know the type--a modern hitmaker will cite them as an influence, then unleash something that sounds as if it's from an entirely different species than said influence. Like Gram Parsons, Nick Drake or Captain Beefheart, Thompson has more fervent devotees than casual fans, and has born the dual tags of "critically acclaimed" and "obscure" from his early golden age until this current age of reissues. Ask a Thompson fan to identify the ideal point to dip a toe in his sprawling discography, and they will tell you "You've got to start in just the right place," and then drop one of a half-dozen dates spanning four decades. Then they will cite Thompson's obscurity as undeniable proof of the decline of Western Civilization. Feel free to walk away at that point. As an introduction, here is a tip from an intermediate--I'd say blue belt--Thompsonian: start by witnessing his legendary live show on August 13, and the rest will unfold organically.
First a little "what's all the fuss about:" By the time he was 18, in 1967, Thompson was already a full-fledged guitar hero in a critic-dubbed "seminal" band, the British folk-rock instigators Fairport Convention. On hallowed albums like Unhalfbrickling and What We Did on Our Holidays (the latter being especially significant, as Thompson is currently on holiday, making an interview impossible), Thompson provided the "rock" half of Fairport's Brits-meets-Byrds formula. He boldly wove distorted guitar solos into songs driven by cellos, dulcimers and finger-picked guitars, rarely sang, but wrote several dark, lyrical ballads about lost love and suicide. In such gentle, acoustic surroundings, Thompson sounded like Jimi Hendrix trapped in a museum of agricultural artifacts. Wisely, he realized the distinctiveness of his vision and set out solo in 1971.
Over a series of now consecrated but originally disregarded releases in the 1970s and 1980s, Thompson and then-wife Linda further expanded the folk pantheon to include harps, horns and lost rural gadgets, never forgetting Thompson's acrobatic Fender Stratocaster as the musical glue. Lyrically, they stirred in new themes of abandonment, poverty, spiritual destitution, drunkenness and criminality--not exactly The Carpenters, but any Thompson-phile will tell you that is exactly the point. The four best of this era's albums, 1971's Henry the Human Fly, 1974's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and the subdued 1975 duo Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver all flaunt a sullen old-timey vibe like a family crest, but have aged remarkably well. As evidence, all four received deluxe reissue treatment this year, so hope for Thompson to plan his set list accordingly.
Today, after 25 albums and countless compilations and bootlegs, Thompson is a laid-back interview (damn his holiday!) who peppers devotion toward his fans with plenty of ironic observations about his lack of mainstream success. He maintains a lengthy monthly Q&A on his Web site (www.richardthompson-music.com), dutifully responding to every redundant query about tunings, chords and his own personal guitar heroes--which are largely jazz guitarists like Django Reinhart and Charlie Christian. On the other hand, Thompson talks about himself with such docile, self-contained wit that his fervent followers must occasionally be enraged when they seek to follow in his footsteps--such as when he described his compositional process to the magazine Acoustic Guitar in 2000 as, "I like to sit and watch TV while noodling on the guitar, because sometimes your fingers just discover things by themselves." The image of Thompson conceiving guitar tour de forces like "Cavalry Cross" or more recently "Jealous Words" to a soundtrack of Judge Judy or Three's Company is a tad disconcerting. It is far from the Ludwig-hunched-at-the-piano-starving-to-death image of a musical virtuoso, but perhaps that is why Thompson has survived to see his historical appreciation, while others like Parsons and Drake have not.
Stylistically, Thompson is currently in a retro groove, trying few new tricks on his 2003 release The Old Kit Bag, and instead hearkening back to the strengths of his landmark albums. Like his historical contemporary Neil Young (popularity aside, the two could be viewed as parallel phenomena of different continents), Thompson still thrives on fuzzed-out folk rock spliced with distorted solos. Like Young, Thompson knows that special cheer of audience recognition that happens at the start of an old song 30-plus years into a career, and utilizes it often. Also like Young, Thompson is not averse to an occasional contemporary political statement, and uses his devout Islamic faith as a starting point to criticize fundamentalist dogma of all varieties.
The opportunity to witness an acclaimed artist touring on the cusp of a massive reissuing of his best work is all too rare in Boise. The rousing 2003 Big Easy set unleashed by folk-lubber punk band X (who, coincidentally, appeared on the 1994 Thompson tribute Beat the Retreat) is one such marvel. Young's relic-heavy 2002 set at the Idaho Center, predating the release of his great "lost" album On the Beach, is another. Suffice it to say, the gods land seldom in the City of Trees, and the pious community will be out with bells on. Don't be afraid to ask for a sermon.
Richard Thompson, August 13, 8 p.m., The Egyptian Theater, 387-1273.