In the endless campaign to win Richard Thompson a mainstream audience, some writers have begun comparing him favorably to Eric Clapton: both are 60s guitar heroes turned singer-songwriters, but Thompson still has the fire in his belly when he straps on his Strat, and his tough, sharply observed songs far outclass Clapton's cheap MOR sentimentality. To this argument I'd add that the critical difference between them is that Thompson has roots. Clapton made his name imitating the bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, and for the last three decades he's lived in New York, a citizen of the international jet set. Thompson came to rock music from British folk, and after all these years he still makes his home in London, where fewer consumers will get to know him but he'll always know himself. All the great storytellers--Dickens, Hugo, Faulkner, Twain--have drawn their wisdom and gravity from a profound sense of place, which is why Clapton will never make a record as strong and centered as Mock Tudor (Capitol), Thompson's alternately fond and bitter recollections of London and its suburbs over the decades. "Cooksferry Queen," with its train rhythm and bluesy harmonica, is narrated by a vicious club owner from Thompson's past who was transformed into a hippie by his first dose of acid. "Walking the Long Miles Home," sort of a Celtic reggae, was inspired by the march the young Thompson endured after gigs, when the bus home had stopped running. Most of the songs are first-person narratives, but "Sights and Sounds of London Town," a lovely duet of acoustic guitar and mandolin, follows four losers--a part-time hooker, an aspiring rap DJ, a young dancer, and a two-bit swindler--as they traverse the city in pursuit of their tatty dreams. The themes are universal, but the loving detail is what makes them stick. Saturday, 6:30 PM, Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, Welles Park, 2333 W. Sunnyside; 773-728-6000. J.R. Jones
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard Thompson photo by Beth Herzhaft.