Wednesday, December 3, 2014

More Than A Sideman: Kasim Sulton Appearing With Todd Rundgren

When musical legend Todd Rundgren took the stage at the Blue Ocean in Salisbury, on Thursday, November 4th, multi-instrumentalist Kasim Sulton was right beside him, on bass, and other instruments. Sulton has been with Rundgren a long time.

“I joined him back when Utopia was first getting together, about 38 years ago. Back then, it was not a pop band- it was entirely different from what it morphed into, which was a great band playing pop music. It was a lot like a jam band. Todd was a fan of Zappa, and that kind of music.  I remember I was really out of my element, a fish out of water. I came from The Beatles, British Pop Rock. When I first joined, Todd was not a big fan of mine; he didn't think I was the right person.  I think he was looking for someone ‘less green’- I was 20 years old, I hadn't been out of NY state, let alone been on a plane. The other guys in the band thought I'd be a great addition, and said ‘we want this guy.’

Although Utopia broke up in 1986, some of the members have continued to tour with Rundgren. For Sulton, the connection with Rundgren has been productive and illuminating.

“Most of what I learned about making records, writing, arranging background vocals and instruments, I learned from Todd.  It was like that book about ‘Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.’ Really, most of what I know about music I learned during the first six and seven years I was with Utopia.”

Sulton has put that knowledge to work.  Over the past 30 years, he has worked with Rundgren and a number of other musicians, including Joan Jett, Jon Bon Govi, Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates, Meatloaf and Blue Oyster Cult, touring, appearing on albums playing anything with strings and a keyboard, or taking a more active role in directing the music.

“I played bass on the first Meatloaf album “Bat Out Of Hell.  Later, when it came time to do the album ‘Bat Out of Hell 2’, I was the music director for the tour. Having been there at the beginning, it was easier for me to shape a band knowing where the original music started from. That album has really become such a part of the soundtrack in the lives of so many people, that I wasn't trying change anything.  I felt there really was no need to change how we did it. We stayed as true as possible to originals, even when ‘Meat’ didn't want to. He’d say ‘let’s add some more power chords, let’s do something new.’  And my feeling was, ‘let's not screw with perfection.’ There are times when you are given freedom to make something your own, and times when you are better off doing what has been done.”

“When I toured with Hall and Oates, they were in an ‘acoustic phase.’ They wanted to do things differently, so I played an upright bass, while they played their songs on acoustic instruments. I had to adapt to doing some of their songs, which had been written in a certain way, to a different style.”

His work with Rundgren has given Sulton the ability to do that successfully, which makes him a sought-after session and touring musician.

 “One of the great things about working with Todd is that he never does the same thing twice.  There is always some little twist, something different.  He’ll switch genres with the set-list for any show; maybe he’ll even add in songs written by other people. So it’s no struggle to keep it fresh.  He’ll do that even with his owns songs, the ones that people knows and love.  On this tour, we’ll still do a song like ‘I Saw The Light’, and ‘Can We Still Be Friends,’ but maybe we’ll do it in a bossa nova style. And it isn’t really a stretch.”

Although Sulton keeps very busy as a working musician- he has also toured with Blue Oyster Cult this year, as well as Rundgren- he has found time to invest some energy in solo work. His third solo album, “3”, is coming out at the end of October.

“The last solo album I did was ten years ago. I started laying down tracks for this one in 2010.  I honestly had no idea this album was going take this long.  I figured maybe a year, year and a half.  What happened was I had a bunch of personal tragedies in my life, and it waylaid me.  And as I got deeper and deeper into the record, I was kind of surprised at how well it was turning out.  So I decided that I didn’t want to rush this to print any sooner than I have to. I had the opportunity to do something that could be extremely proud of this point in career and life. Once I saw that this record was some of best work I've ever done, really wanted to take my time; I wasn't being forced to finish. So I made sure I was happy with every single note, lyric, with the recording.  I think I did a pretty good job.  Hey, I’m the last person to say I’m happy with my work, but I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve done.”

The CD is a mature work; retaining the pop sensibility that Sulton brings to his other work.  It is also lyrically thoughtful and introspective.

“Honestly, let's not mince words- I'm in my late fifties. When you start getting a little older, you take stock. How have I spent the last fifty years? What were my mistakes, accomplishment, regrets, and triumphs.  Inevitably, that’s going to come out in my songwriting.  I’m not a prolific songwriter- but often, when something has happened to me, I need to express it in music and words.”

Kasim Sulton is in an enviable place.

“When it comes down to it, I really do know that I have the respect of my peers.  To me, that’s priceless.”

He’s been an integral collaborator with one of rock and pop music’s true geniuses, Todd Rundgren, for more than 35 years.  He had a chance to work with some of the legends in rock music- Hall of Famers like Mick Jagger and Hall and Oates, and play on one of the best-selling albums in history. And when he has time, he’s able to put together a CD that he’s as proud of as any of his other work.

You can follow Sulton on Facebook and on Twitter (@ksulton).

Melanie Has A Brand New Key

Melanie would be the first to admit she’s lived something of a charmed life.  The effusive energetic singer, who may be the only person alive who appeared at Woodstock and had songs covered by Cher and Miley Cyrus, is appearing at The Center for Performing Arts in Natick (TCAN) on Thursday, December 4.

Her path from Woodstock to Natick is interesting, as was her journey from adolescence to Woodstock itself. She shared that story with us.

“To be honest, I didn't spend a lot of time paying dues.  I went to acting school and did some auditions, not a lot, because I was shy, and an introvert. I sang in Greenwich Village, on the streets, in coffee houses.  I wasn't even interested in the money- I thought it was embarrassing to pass the hat, and I had no guitar case. I literally walked away from money.”

“To this day, I don't know what motivated me.  I was really shy, but while I was singing, I was really driven.  It was the ‘in-between stuff’ I wasn't good at.  I needed people who would deal with the money, and organizing my career. I was right out of acting school.”|

“One day, I went to a building to do an audition for a musical, and there was a music publishing company on the same floor.  I walked into it by accident. They thought because I was there with a guitar, I had come to audition for this producer who worked there, Peter Scheheryk. So the next thing I know, I’m auditioning for him. And that was it. He and I fell in love, and married, and he became that person who took care of the business for me. Money, producing, business. For 45 years; until he passed away a few years ago. So I didn’t really feel the reality of having to make a living at this. I guess I had the sort of career where you ay your dues in public.”

Even into a life as serendipitously blessed as Melanie’s a little rain falls.

“Well, I did have a real job, once.  I was in a bar on 80th Street.  I think it was a gay bar.  I was a gourmet girl, I was dressed up a French peasant woman costume- I spoke French, that’s how I got the job.  I was supposed to walk around, say a few words, and sell cheese baskets. One night they assigned me to the coatroom, and I hadn’t done that before- and I was with a friend, and we got to talking.  And at the end of the night, there was a huge pile of coats, and the wrong tickets attached to them. It was a mess. And I was fired on the spot, which wasn’t fair, ‘cos they had never really trained me for what they wanted me to do.”

Melanie did not let that get her down.  She moved smoothly through a career that by the end have brought her Gold Records for songs like ‘Beautiful People,’ ‘Lay Down,’ ‘Candles in the Rain,’ ‘Brand New Key,’ and ‘Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma.”  There was a great deal of acclaim- at one point Billboard, Cashbox, Melody Maker, Record World, and Bravo all promoted her as the Number # Female Vocalist in the World. There were appearances on Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, the Tonight Show, Johnny Cash. And of course, onstage at the Woodstock Festival, early on, in 1969.

“Well, that was totally serendipity.  My husband had an office in same building as the organizers.  I first heard about the festival about a year out. The Aquarian Exposition, arts crafts for three days... that sounds nice. My husband Peter figured we’d like to do it, and they said, ‘yeah, come and play’, it was like that.”

“I was in England doing a film score, working as a songwriter in London with Peter, and I was really enjoying being behind the scenes.  We debated whether I should come back to the states to do Woodstock, and finally, we decided I should go, play, and then come back a few days later to finish up. So I get on the plane, with no clue about the hype, and my mother meets me at the airport, and takes me up to where I’m supposed to be. Which turns out to be somewhere else.  By now we’re beginning to realize things are getting a little different. I get to this motel, and there’ all this traffic, and we’re thinking that it might be related to the festival- and the first person I see in the lobby of the hotel, there’s Janis Joplin. Then Sly Stone walks by. OMG! I’m thinking what am I into here?”

“I’d never seen anyone famous before, close up. So terror starts to mount.  The next thing I know, they’re hustling us towards a helicopter. And my mother tries to get in with me, and the pilot says ‘who’s that’, and I say ‘my mother,’ and he says “sorry, no moms here,” and I don’t think to say “... and my manager...”  So the copter lifts off without her, and it’s my first copter ride.  And as we get close to the festival, I look down, and I see what looks like a big lake and I ask, “What’s that,” and the pilot says, “That’s the people.” And I don’t believe him, so I point to another thing that looks like a pond and I say ‘What’s that?’ And he says, “That’s still the people. They’re all the people down there.” It was terrifying, and we are landing over that big sea- and I still didn’t believe it was all people.  And I get out, and Richie Havens is like on his 30th Chorus of ‘Freedom’, and I could tell his passion was coming from several laces- terror being one of them. And I’ve never seen such a big riser on a stage before. It was just unbelievable. And when it’ time for me to go on, it’s getting dark, so the Hog Farm, I think, starts to distribute all of these candles. And it starts to rain, and all of these candles are getting lit, I’m trying to absorb this- and then I start, and all the candles get lit. And that’s where the candle lighting began, holding up a match.  For the rest of the time I appeared onstage, anywhere, people would bring a candle to my concerts. And fire marshals hated it.”

Like I Need To Add A Caption?

Since the seventies, with virtually no break, Melanie has continued to perform, and record. She often brought her kids on tour with her husband, who had also taken on the additional responsibilities of tour manager for her. It comes as no surprise that her son Beau-Jarred, has become an integral art of her musical universe.  In addition to having become a guitar player of astonishing skill, speed and melodic substance, he is also following in his father’s footsteps- engineering, arranging.

“He’s upstairs right now working on some classical arrangements of my early songs.  I work with a label that has the resources to be able to look back at that stuff, and then help me to present it with some beautiful, full instrumental arrangements. And Beau is writing them!”  There is no small touch of parental pride in her voice when she speaks of her kids.

Her most recent CD was recorded in 2010, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, while her husband was still alive.  It is vintage Melanie in many ways, drawing from world musical motifs, a little rough around the edges, and delivered with ebullience and love and largeness of heart and voice. Available through her website, the CD was never given a full-bore release the passing of her husband.

In many ways, the change from a relationship in which Melanie was sheltered from “the business” and allowed simply to create in a supportive, familial environment has not passed unnoticed by the veteran performer.

“Since Peter passed a few years ago, I’ve been sort of thrown into the ‘other side’ of the business. I was so sheltered.  But think at this point in my life, I am too much who I am to be badly affected by that.”

“I tell everyone I’m ‘the oldest little girl in the world.’  My life before now seems like another universe entirely. It’s such a different world now for me. I'm much less guarded, and like being less in the public eye.  It seems like there wasn't a time when everyone knew everything I did.  When the pressure is off that way, and everyone isn't waiting for you, you can take a breath.”

Melanie remains a high energy, very giving performer, so it’s likely that breath will be a short one- enough to get her to the chorus of the next song.

Melanie is appearing at The Center for the Art in Natick on December 4th, and at the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry New Hampshire on December 5th.

You can follow her at her website at:


Ever Since You Never Heard of Me
Available through the website:

Melanie has always been something of a happy anomaly in a business that usually shies away from the singular of any artistic particular quality. She is, and remains a genuine original, with a heart as big as Cleveland and a quirky, affectionate sense of humor,  she has succeeded in her career beyond her own expectations (which were minimal in terms of traditional success), and certainly beyond that which was expected.  It is hard to imagine another performer of her era, who appeared at Woodstock, and who continues to offer new music as personal and relevant as Melanie.  Perhaps Neil Young stands with her in that regard.

This CD was recorded four years ago, work begun by Melanie’s guiding force and muse of 45 years, her husband, producer, manager Peter Scheyereck, who passed away while the recording was in progress. The album was completed, and features Beau-Jarrerd, the couple’s son.

It also features a roiling and eclectic array of Melanie tunes.  Traditional, rooted in world melodies, and catchy.  She has always had the ability to shine through her own lyrics as the genuine article- personal, humorous, transparent.  In many ways, this CD reflects Melanie at her “earthiest”- the least polished production, the most ragged of accompaniment- and it is a deeply, warmly authentic piece of work, worthy of her canon, and of a regular spot in you CD queue.

It is a collection of songs that seem half-finished, in a warm sort of way.  But by no means incomplete- what is missing, simply is the part that the audience brings to the listening experience. In an almost magical way, the CD can only be completed by the listener bringing their own sensibility to ‘the party’; it is a space left by a generous artist to be filled by an enthusiastic and open listener.   And that is an experience this listener hasn’t felt since the release of Warren Zevon’s The Wind, a CD that cannot be heard without full listener engagement on an emotional level.  That is a rare feat, done here with such riveting honesty that it is often breathtaking. That ethereal connection to Zevon is further reinforced by the tune ‘I Tried to Die Young’ with the neo-Zevonian lyrics “there were demons, I know them, and they still come by, well we’ve become friends, my demons and I”.

Notable tunes on the CD include the very beautiful “Kiss From The Heart”, a moving song about true love and deep attachment, and loss- something that is fresh for the artists.  I use the plural, because of the presence of Melanie’s son on harmony.

Melanie and Beau
Any doubts that Beau’s talent is monster big, and will be a part of his parents’ happy legacy should be erased by his guitar playing on Deserts of Blue, which opens with some glistening guitar fretwork by the then-sixteen year old. His demonstrated gifts on this tune are nothing short of jaw dropping.

Melanie remains fully in control of her muse.  She has suggested that the passing of her husband has in some ways opened her eyes and ears to a whole new range of possibilities.  Ever Since You Never Knew Me is ample proof of that. The future looks creative for this artist.

The Powers of Music- Kerri Powers Reloads and Recharges

Kerri Powers now has a perspective that she didn’t have earlier in her musical career, when she first started out. Powers, opening for Melanie at The Center for Arts in Natick on December 4th, and headlining her own show on December 6th at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA, is emerging from a self-imposed hiatus, taken primarily to raise her son.


“I have lot more faith and confidence in my own ability.  I tend to be highly creative and visual, but when I started out, I didn't really have a belief in myself. After giving birth, you get this sense that there is nothing you can't do.  Raising my son, and just so much life experience, have put me in a much different place.  I’m much more likely to go with the flow.”

That ‘flow’ moves through the singer-songwriter Powers with intensity and strength, born of the challenges in life- childrearing, separation and divorce, and probing the depth of her own artistic ‘calling.’  She is re-emerging as a much more self-assured and deeper artist, more solid in her craft, and focused on her calling. 

“I have more clarity, a greater sense of honesty. I feel blessed I can do this, now.  I can’t imagine a life not doing it- music, art- I am clear that this is what ‘I’ do. I know you need, these days, to have 100% of your soul engaged, and faith.  It is not an easy industry to make a living in.”

Personally introspective and intense, it seems increasingly natural that Powers is supremely comfortable with the blues as a force that informs her musical sensibility. There would seem to be a paradox for her- the transparency with feeling and emotions that characterizes the blues, and her own more recent insight into that kind of openness and seamless honesty in her own art. 

“I think from the time I was young, I always resonated with the blues. All music stems from that form.  Of all the music I know, I think it’s the best way to connect with people.  It opens the heart.  If you are gonna put music out there has to be about feeling, connecting with others.  I’ve always been shy, so I know it seems like a paradox, but the blues have always been my way to get out there more.  To me, it’s natural... it's all about the feel, about what it evokes in people.  It’s a very powerful form of music. All music comes from that place- all from the blues.”

As she has grown as an artist and songwriter, she has found a changed music industry. 

"Well, this industry is not easy- it’s completely different than when I started a couple of decades ago. Because of the changes in how artists are marketed, and market themselves, it’s tough.  It’s a great time for indie artists, in some respect, but it is also a heavily saturated market.  I find I just have to do what feels right- do what I do, and go along for the ride." 

Powers’ original songs have a spaciousness of form, an easy confidence about them. They are infused with the blues, but are also threaded with other American musical idioms- country, r and b.  She can power off blues riffs with the best of them, but moves easily through an interesting and sinewy musical landscape.  Her most recent album features two covers- the heartfelt Janis Ian tune ‘Jesse,’ and the BeeGees classic ‘To Love Somebody’.

“When I do a tune written by somebody else, it has to completely absorb me from the get go- has to make me cry.  I am drawn to that very intense vibe. Actually, it was Gram Parson’s version of ‘To Love Somebody’ that caught me. I just went crazy for it, I cried when I heard it. That doesn't happen often for me, so I guess that's how I know.”

She’s not afraid to be interpretive with the work of another songwriter. 

"I believe in artistic license. I think it's right from an artist’s standpoint. If you can’t believe in in yourself enough to wear ‘different hats,’ and enjoy the process- maybe this isn’t for you.  Not everyone is gonna like what you do compared to what they are used to. But it is about being true to ourselves, as artists, as well." 

With her new self-titled new CD, Kerri Powers, she has re-entered the music scene emphatically and with confidence, after a self- and circumstantially imposed hiatus.

“I always hoped I could continue making art.  I never had grandiose ideas about where it would go, though I do think that when we’re older, we learn not to mess with expectations. I love having the ability to grow with what I 'm feeling and fortunate enough to put be in a place to put it out there.  I never had dreams of a star, never got caught up in all that stuff.”

“I guess I never truly was able to ‘stifle’ all of that stuff inside of me. There was a time I had to take a break for an important priority, but that artist part was always there.  I couldn’t leave it behind and be a complete person.”

Powers remains true to her art, and her heart. She can be found online at: Kerri Powers

She is appearing at the Center for the Arts in Natick on December 4th, at 8pm. She can also be seen at Temple Isaiah in Lexington on the 6th of December. 


Kerri Powers
Kerri Powers 
Available through website: Kerri Powers

Powers eponymous second album is a strong offering, deeply reflective of a thoughtful and somewhat restless talent.  She is a gifted melodist, painting in deep and at times subtle shades of blues and angularity. This is a sparse view of the aural landscape, well suited to her muscular lyrics and delivery.  In Powers’ lyrical world there are few places to hide. 

In her return to recording and touring as a lifestyle choice, Powers is on the fast track as an artist evolving. There is a self-confidence about this set of music that suggests an artist growing comfortable in their own skin, and with their own gifts.

Powers has some real blues chops, mostly restrained on this CD, but threading neatly throughout her tunes. However, those confusing restraint with sedate are warned that Powers has some sharpened steel running through her words; one need only sit through the opening tune, ‘Tallulah Send a Car For Me;’ which sets the stage for Powers to assert herself with authority, as Kevin Costner once said in Bull Durham.  “Can’t wear my alligator boots in church- preacher says all they ever do is drag in dirt, well I think I got some dirt on his clean white shirt.”  And if that isn’t fair warning enough, she also confesses ‘I love lighting firecrackers in the dark.’

And yet, the aching transparency she shows in her cover of Janis Ian’s Jesse reveals a vulnerable heart behind all the bluster of Tallulah. The third tune, an original, ‘Old Shirt’, reveals another aspect of the artist a person; the hurt, and forgiving person, who has ‘come apart at the seams that hold an old shirt together.’

A mature work that delivers, and yet promises in it’s next incarnation to move us even further along on this artistic, evolutionary journey of Powers’. Terrific, listenable, and moving. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Under 'Re-construction'

Stick with us, folks. The best is yet to post.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Staying Strait... A Conversation with Chris White of the Straits

Maybe you can’t go home again, but thankfully, there is always the opportunity to revisit great music.  The Straits, featuring two members of Dire Straits, are keeping the music of that legendary band alive and well, and adding to the legacy with some new tunes.  Although Dire Straits has never fully reformed, the interest in their music has never seemed to wane.  Some members of the band put together a few benefit gigs, and to their delight, discovered the chemistry of the band remained intact, and that the magic present when they played live was still working. After a great deal of encouragement from friends and fans, including founder Mark Knopfler, and a catalog of songs that  reflect a virtual soundtrack of the era they were created, "The Straits" are embarking on a tour that showcases the music of “Dire Straits.” Current band members from the original eighties and nineties family include Chris White, the sax player and keyboard player Alan Clark.  They are joined by some of the best side players in the music world. 

White is quite emphatic that “The Straits” are not a “tribute band.”  He’s right. Having helped to create the sound, Clark and White have skin in the game. And heart.

“Really, this is a ‘different band’ than the original Dire Straits. We’ve got a number of new musicians joining us, great musicians. Because they are so good, it’s brought a renewed energy to the music. From the reaction we’ve been getting from audiences, it feels a lot like it did the first time, through.”

The music of Dire Straits sold well over 30,000,000 albums at their peak, winning four Grammy awards. It is deeply embedded in the American music scene, though they hailed from Britain. White thinks he has some insight into that phenomenon, and isn’t immune to it himself.

“I really think that music serves a purpose for people because it ‘locates.’ I’ve got tracks that ‘locate’ people in my life in certain times and places. Just about everyone remembers where they were when they first heard ‘Sultans of Swing.’ For me, I remember driving in the cart, and hearing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the first time- my mouth was hanging open!”

It’s more than that, he feels. There is a historical context.

“I also think that the Dire Straits stuff was quite different than what was going on in England at the time. It was non-punk. As things progressed with the band, so did technology.  There were more sounds available. Mark (Knopfler, founder, lead guitar player, and main songwriter for the original band) really embraced that.  Some of the later arrangements have quite a large and classical feel. In that regard, the music really stood out to people.”

It still does.

White has great respect for the music he and the band will be playing in Salisbury, and is grateful for the freedom it gives him as a player.

“I started with Mark as a sax player, working on some film stuff with him.  He asked me to join the band. Mark knew me as a solo player, and not really for ensemble work.  As a result, I got a lot of freedom to try things, and work stuff in. I’m not really a jazz player; I’ve been pretty much in rock and pop my whole career. What I was able to do with the songs has been really great for me, I’ve grown a lot.”

The repertoire of the “Straits” covers much of the history of “Dire Straits.”  They are planning on laying down some original tracks in the fall, to see where it takes them.

“That will be music that this band, this group of people will create. We think we have some of our own music in us as a band.”

While the songs in the Salisbury set are going to be familiar to fans, “The Straits” bring something extra to the stage.

“These guys are really great musicians in their own right. Some of the best.  And they bring a wealth of experience and their own unique style to the music, while playing within the fabric of the song. We can do that because these are very good songs. Steve Ferrone isn’t able to join us on the tour- he’s the drummer, and he has some things to do with Tom Petty, the band he mainly plays in. We’ve brought in a drummer from the UK, Andy Davis.  So where Steve might have taken us one place, Andy tends to bring us back to the more original Dire Straits sound, which has also been great.”

“And it’s been great having Terrence Rais out in front of the band on guitar- without even trying, he is able to sound like Mark.  For example, last night, in Portland, Maine, he took off at the end of ‘Sultans of Swing,’ in a way Mark would not have, but was totally in keeping with the song. We were chasing each other in ways we hadn’t before, and then Andy was able to bring us back again.  As a musician, that’s a fantastic opportunity.  That’s given so much new energy to the rest of us, and kept the music fresh. “

White points out that the band reformed as a result of a charity concert in London two years ago.

“Yeah, we got a fantastic reaction, more than we imagined.  So we did a few gigs, and few more, then got serious about doing this. So far, American audiences have been every bit as enthusiastic as the ones we’ve seen in Europe.  We’re playing much smaller venues for this tour, and have been having a great time connecting with the audience.”

Because of their time and place in pop music, that connection has become multi-generational.

“We got an email the other day from a guy who said ‘my father took me to see Dire Straits in 1992, and last night, I took him to see you guys. Thanks for making that possible.  And the other night, two guys hung around after the gig, and came up to us and said ‘thanks for holding on to this music, it’s wonderful.’  We’ve just been knocked out by the response.”

I Feel So Good- Richard Thompson So Far

When Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, one of rock music’s most iconic writers, anointed him one the top 20 Greatest Guitarists in contemporary music- (actually #19), and then punctuated that selection by noting that Thompson is the ‘Greatest Guitarist in British Folk Rock,’ the singer-songwriter didn’t spend a lot of time wondering what it would take to move up a notch or two, or break into the top 10

Thompson is aware of the honor, but keeps his own perspective on it

“Yeah, it’s nice, but it is also kind of silly.  I mean how do you really make a decision like that? Where is Segovia on a list like that- obviously, if he isn’t Number 1, than it doesn’t really get at the point, does it?  How can Les Paul even be given a number like 37?  It sells a lot of Rolling Stones’ but it isn’t really an accurate reflection of the state of musicianship. It s kind of futile to compare musicians working in different genres.”

His career began in the mid-sixties in his native England; Thompson is barreling through his fifth decade as a ‘working musician’ with no indication of slowing down creatively. He is rooted in a remarkable period of British pop music, the mid to late sixties; when he and his band-mates in Fairport Convention forged an entirely new style and sound, blending English and Scottish folk music with rock, Cajun and American folk traditions, along with world motifs like gypsy, middle-eastern sounds- all played on electric instruments. A measure of Thompson’s and Fairport’s influence was their being tagged with as “the English version of the Byrds.” a simplistic, shorthanded label that actually undervalues their contribution.

Bristling with Thompson’s trademark keen and mordant wit, his eclectic musical taste, and stunning guitar chops, the songs he wrote and recorded more than 45 years ago retain a timelessness that a lot of music of that era simply does not have. How has that music managed to stay so fresh, and transcendent?

“Well, it does have a lot to do with how we recorded it. Working with a great producer, Joe Boyd, and a classically trained engineer, John Wood, we intentionally avoided a lot of the studio effects and touches of the time.  We did the songs in a very ‘neutral’ way, straight-ahead- drums in the center, guitars and vocals by the guitarist ‘miked’ in the same place- we created a real visual in the mind of the listener- any listener could ‘see’ the band as we played in the studio.  That, and not a lot of those ‘psychedelic’ sound effects, make the music sort of timeless, I think.

Thompson has recorded more than 40 albums.  While that is a considerable amount of work, it has reflected a lifetime as an artist.  And that sort of longevity has advantages and disadvantages.

“Well, an advantage to longevity is that I don’t have to build an audience on the back of hit records.  My audience, over time, has come from word of mouth.  I suppose the disadvantage of being around so long is that it is impossible to get your CD’s reviewed. The reviewers just seem to say ‘oh look, yet another package from Thompson.’ It is a bit frustrating, when you work hard, and are coming up with new things to say, to not be able to get your materiel reviewed.”

Though Thompson has unearthly chops on guitar that have made him a highly desirable collaborator, his skill as a songwriter has lead to an astonishing range of artists covering his music.

Thompson is a bit circumspect with regard to his body of written work.

“Well, I’ve never really had the time to get frustrated with whole idea that I should have a bigger audience than I get.  The music I play doesn't deserve a big audience.  I’ve always written for a more selective group of people, with ideas about the world, and as a result, I’ve always known I was never going to have a huge crowd of followers.”

Those who know Thompson and have long admired him might disagree.  Marblehead-based Dave Mattacks, an accomplished drummer who has partnered with Thompson repeatedly since first joining Fairport in 1969, uses him as a benchmark when speaking with others about the art of songwriting.

"As a musician, I'm always having people tell me about great songwriters and/or guitarists who I 'need-to-hear.' My response is usually positive, as I genuinely am interested.  But I usually respond with  ‘so, what do you think of Richard Thompson?’  If I get a blank stare back, well, I'm afraid you've just lost ten points. To put it frankly, if you don't know about Richard, and you're telling me about songwriters and guitarists...”

Another measure of Thompson’s pre-eminence among the songwriters of his generation is the extraordinary number artists, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, covering his songs. The list includes Robert Plant, Allison Krause, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, John Doe, Shawn Colvin, Nathalie Merchant, Mary Lou Lord, The Pointer Sisters, the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, Los Lobos, David Byrne, Dave Gilmour, the Neville Brothers, Don Henley, Bob Dylan, Shawn Colvin.  For starters. "

Yeah, well the covers are a nice surprise,” says Thompson, in a characteristic understatement.  He is less surprised about the number of ‘country’ artists who find his work compelling.

“There is a strong tie between Appalachian music and Scottish music, so the connection with artists who do country seems a natural one to me. Country is a pretty tight genre, so I guess it does say something that a number of those folks like the songs. Then again, I can remember listening to ‘Prairie Home Companion’ once, and they proved that just about any song ever written can be done in a bluegrass version.”

His peers have covered Thompson classics like Wall of Death, Dimming of the Day, Turning of the Tide, I Misunderstood, Where the Drunkards Roll. Thompson’s evolution as a songwriter- from his early, traditional-folk influenced tunes, to the searing and powerfully self-revelatory work with his former wife Linda, on through to his narrative and character-driven story songs provide a veritable banquet of choices for other musicians. His song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning- a melding of the outlaw ballad tradition with modern biker culture, fueled by some of the most incendiary and intricate finger-picking extant, continues to seduce artists up for the challenge of telling a great story, and embellishing it with high-order instrumental chops. 

These days, Thompson occasionally plays with his son Teddy, born of his earlier marriage to Linda Peters Thompson- the extraordinary vocalist. The younger Thompson is not joining the elder Thompson on this tour.  The elder is, of course, understandably proud of his son.

“It’s been great fun to collaborate with Teddy. It’s wonderful to make music with family, because you share a lot of the same sensibilities.  You’re on the same page.  Your voices sound similar, so you can sing great harmonies. It’s been great to see him become a musician, someone I enjoy and admire. Of course, as a parent, it can be frustrating.  He’s good; why don’t more people listen to him?”

Given the length and arc of his father’s career, I suspect that Teddy will be adding luster to the family legacy for a long time to come.

photo credits: Ron Sleznak

photo credits: Ron Sleznak