Richard Thompson
Walking On A Wire

Release Date: August 18, 2009
Produced by: Various
Format: CD Box



Mark Squirek


For years I avoided Richard Thompson like I owed him money. Over the years, a friend would play something by Fairport Convention or a Thompson solo cut, but I could never wrap my head or heart around what was going on. And since I love to read about rock and its history, I knew full why Fairport and Thompson were important and that they were considered to be among the best at what they do. However, I felt no urge to hear more music from either he nor his former comrades in folk.

About ten years ago, I was watching a televised tribute to Joni Mitchell. The artists came and went but when Thompson came out and took the stage I made an effort to listen to what he played. I put down the snacks, magazines, and drinks and focused on exactly what he was going to do.

On Black Crow, Thompson took a jazz/folk song and did it as close to heavy metal as you can get without wearing spandex or flashing the popular devil-sign to the audience. His guitar sounded like barbed wire. It was revelatory to me.

A short while later he took the stage with a single acoustic guitar and did the most subtly beautiful version of Woodstock you could ever hope to hear. The guitar sounded like two people playing. I couldn’t figure out how he had imaginitively created the solos he took. They were amazing and outside of any musical reference point that I understand. But they worked perfectly. As a longtime fan of Mitchell I knew both songs as well as I know any others. Thompson had shown me something utterly original in both performance songs all without the slightest hint of histrionics or breaking a sweat.

When Thompson finished the second number I stood up, walked out of the house, and went straight to Record and Tape Traders in Towson to buy a Richard Thompson album. I came home with his 1999 release Mock Tudor. Since than hardly a week goes by that I don’t play something that the man has recorded. 

In short, it doesn’t matter how you find Thompson’s work, all that matters is that you eventually do. It is among the best and most intelligent, uncompromising music to have come along in the last fifty years.

This new box set is as good a place to start as you could hope for. Walking on a Wire is an amazing overview of his life in music. Throughout  the years Thompson has always challenged himself and his audience and when you rise to that challenge, the rewards are well worth your time. Many of these rewards are inside this new release from Shout! Factory.

The set takes at least one representative song from almost every studio album Thompson has created over the last forty years. Shout! Factory has done a great job in licensing his work from several different labels in order to provide the ultimate collection.

Moving chronologically, the Box covers his earliest work with Fairport Convention and then traveling into his work on a series of classic albums with ex-wife Linda Thompson. From there his solo career begins to take shape in a series of mostly remarkable albums recorded over the last few decades.

Thompson has picked each of the tracks included in the box himself and he hits the money shot with each song he has chosen. While some may quibble with choices made by various producers that Thompson has worked with over the years, this set is proof of Thompson’s strength as a writer and musician. He never disappears under the weight of what a few of the producers brought to his work. Neither do the songs.

His legendary guitar work is present in one form or another on every cut, but it is the man’s skill as a songwriter that holds your attention throughout. The care and precision Thompson has used in his writing shows in every number chosen. He seldom wastes a second of the listener’s time.

Few musicians can walk in so many genres and emerge with such a credible body of work. The box set skips from dance hall to folk to rock and over to jazz in the course of twenty minutes and yet it is all completely original and completely Richard Thompson. With over 400 songs to his credit, this box set manages to beautifully showcase 71 of his finest works.

His songwriting is among the most literate you'll find. Songs such as Beeswing, From Galway to Graceland and 1952 Vincent Black Lightening are as exciting, alive and precise as self- contained stories as anything written for the page by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Conner or John Cheever. Inside Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? you can find parts of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and even Mickey Spillane.

Thompson is often at his best when he is saying the least. Thompson encapsulates the heartbreak of love with a quiet simplicity in I Misunderstood. A person’s willingness to forgive almost anything in the name of love is at the core of Persuasion. The  Dimming of the Day is a beautiful interior monologue that covers aging, longing and honest human need perfectly. Sometimes it accomplishes this in the span of a single sentence.

In reference to his guitar playing, Rolling Stone placed Thompson in the top twenty of rock’s greatest guitarists. Many compare his guitar work to Clapton, Beck and Page as the best to have ever come out of England. All four are obviously among the best , but Thompson approaches his guitar from a different perspective than the other three. There are examples of this different approach found throughout the set.

Listen to Fairport Convention’s Sloth, found at the beginning of the set or the live version of Hard on Me from a few years ago. In each case, often by using tunings or picking techniques unfamiliar to a mostly straightforward blues and rock loving audience, Thompson takes the solos somewhere we had no real idea they could go. Beck is the only other one of the other three who can walk down that same, unexpected path. Clapton and Page (almost always) move in a straight line through the blues/rock canon.

This may be at the core of why I couldn’t figure out what Thompson was creating for so long. I have spent a long time listening to what is essentially American Blues/Rock/Folk in one form or another. I had no real exposure or understanding of the details found in the traditions found in English Folk, the music of the English Dance hall or the odder guitar tunings and scales that Thompson will often incorporate into his work.

I didn’t need to understand what lay behind his music so much as I needed to open my supposedly already-opened mind.

When I heard him bend a few unusual notes during his performance of Woodstock at the Mitchell tribute, everything suddenly made sense to me. He was marrying different traditions into something new and exciting. He was, at his core, an innovator.

By focusing, for the most part, on songs from the official studio releases of Thompson’s career, Shout! Factory has done a near-perfect job. The remastering is faultless. There are no real rarities on the set, however those can be found on a 5CD set, RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, which was released by Free Reed in 2006. That set was created with the hardcore Thompson fan in mind.

Asking a new fan to work their way though the four CDs found on Walking on a Wire may be a bit of a test, but great rewards are there for those who care to listen. Thompson has worked very hard at what he does over the years and any effort you have to make to understand what he has accomplished will be paid back a hundred fold.









Copyright 2002-2009 Matthew Rowe.
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212 Frech

"Even though most of the people I knew in my youth are gone, I still reach out to them..." Norman Maclean - Paraphrase

"...we should enjoy every sandwich." -- Warren Zevon
"Buy the ticket, take the ride." -- Hunter S Thompson
" best wake up 'fore tomorrow comes creepin' in...: -- Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad)
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