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ACL Fest 2010 preview: Richard Thompson

Parry Gettelman

You will not find many all-live albums of all-new material at the record store, and there's a good reason for that, according to acclaimed singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson.

‘Not many people are crazy enough to try,' said Thompson, who recorded his just-released ‘Dream Attic' in February at West Coast shows with the electric band he's bringing to the Austin City Limits Festival on Sunday.

‘It's a scary thing, because you don't really know if you're going to be able to get definitive performances in a very limited rehearsal time and recording time,' Thompson says by phone. ‘What we did for the shows was, we played the new album straight down, as a sort of set, and we took an interval and did a second set of more familiar material. Thirteen new songs straight is tough on an audience, but we tried to explain the structure, and people seemed to relax more into it, and it seemed to work quite well.'

Of course a great many established artists sneak in no more than two or three new songs over the course of an entire show.

‘It's a shame, a waste of material, and in these recycling-conscious days, we should be not throwing stuff away, really,' Thompson says drolly.

Having built an audience not through radio play but through decades of stellar performances and the concordant word-of-mouth, Thompson has earned more leeway than most for experimentation. He first dazzled fans in the 1960s as a member of pioneering British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, later gained a cult following through recordings with then-wife Linda Thompson, including the classic ‘Shoot Out the Lights,' and has sustained a remarkable solo career since the early '80s. At his shows, fans are prepared to follow daring guitar adventures into the unknown, and they are as likely to yell out for obscure numbers off 1981s all-instrumental ‘Strict Tempo' as to clamor for songs such as ‘Dimming of the Day' (covered by Bonnie Raitt), ‘Tear-Stained Letter' (a country hit for Louisiana's Jo-El Sonnier) or ‘I Feel So Good' (the most upbeat tune ever written from the narrative viewpoint of an imminent re-offender).

The newest songs were all written in a period of just a few months, Thompson says.

‘I wrote a lot of them in Hawaii, strangely enough. It's a very good place for writing about northern European angst and depression.'

A native Londoner of Scots descent, Thompson has actually lived in Southern California for many years.

‘I don't use it as a landscape for my songs. I suppose I read too much Emily Bronte when I was a kid. Everything is on a windswept moor somewhere.'

Thompson's forte as a lyricist is storytelling, and ‘Dream Attic' contains a prime example in the murder ballad ‘Sidney Wells.' Thompson said he usually doesn't know how the plot will turn out when he starts to write such a song.

‘That's part of the fun, to see where it takes you,' Thompson says. ‘And then you get to a certain point in the song, and think ‘Gosh, it has to end somehow!' And being a fairly traditional type of murder ballad, there has to be some kind of comeuppance for this guy.'

The anonymous authors of traditional ballads are among Thompson's favorite writers.

‘Some of that language, some of those stories, are among the best stuff in English literature,' Thompson says. ‘I think sometimes, some very clever farmer or something would write an original song, perhaps like a schoolteacher, a failed poet, would come up with the original version, and then singers would kind of adapt it and change lines, leave out the bad verses, improve some couplets here and there, and over hundreds of years, those songs really get polished. You have something that's very terse and very descriptive, and very tight.'

Every one of the new songs debuted live in February ultimately ended up on ‘Dream Attic,' from ‘Money Shuffle,' a sardonic rave-up that takes on the financial industry, to the lovely, gospel-flavored memorial ballad ‘A Brother Slips Away.'

‘The funny thing about doing this project is you almost have no perspective on the songs. It goes straight from writing them to playing them live,' Thompson says. ‘You haven't got the six months' delay between recording the album and releasing it to kind of reflect on the material and think, "Well, I've gone off that one, we'll only play these ones." So not having any perspective, we just played them all!'

‘Even the ones the audience hated, we just kept in there,' Thompson jests. ‘We couldn't quite detect any real clunkers, anything people absolutely loathed or despised. We sort of had enough faith in songs, and were willing to persevere with them. And we told people, "You will grow to love them. ... One day. ... Somehow."'

Richard Thompson plays at 7 p.m. Sunday on the Clear 4G stage.