On March 1, 2005, Queen Elizabeth II opened the doors of Buckingham Palace to the U.K. music industry. Rock luminaries including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were introduced to Her Majesty, along with another, though lesser known guitar great, Richard Thompson.
After asking Led Zep's Page, "Are you a guitarist?" the queen met Thompson, who had been introduced as a singer and songwriter. "How lovely for you," she responded.
"It was a big stand-up party in these huge reception rooms with the walls studded with Rembrandts and Caravaggios," Thompson recalls.
From Celtic roots to rock royalty, this British national treasure isn’t resting on his laurels
"The queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and other royals were circulating very informally, there was no bowing and scraping. The queen would just slide up to you and say, 'How are you?' and 'What do you do?' It was great, I got my 40 seconds with the queen and she was lovely."
Hailed by the BBC as "a national treasure," and by Elvis Costello as the best songwriter Britain has ever produced, Thompson was recently honored with a four-disc retrospective, "Walking On A Wire," prompting Rolling Stone to sum him up as: "A perennial dark-horse contender for the title of Greatest Living Rock Guitarist."
It just happens to be his third multidisc release in a remarkable career that began back in the late 1960s with the pioneering English folk rock group Fairport Convention.
* Richard Thompson performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater. Tickets are $35 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
"It's nice to have these kinds of milestones- at least they're milestones not millstones," he says about the newest collection. "They're reference points to use as an artist so you can say, OK, I've done that, what's next? If I look at them, they should stir me on to greater activity because if it's supposed to be a summation of what I've done, then it's not enough. I find it more inspirational in terms of the creative process and looking to the future."
So it's not time to rest on his laurels?
"Certainly not, we never rest," he humorously affirms.
The 71-track compilation amasses selections from 34 albums released between 1968 and 2007. A highly original songwriter, passionate vocalist and brilliant, innovative guitarist, Thompson is known for an intense, Celtic-flavored rock style, sometimes unleashing jaw-dropping, almost tortured electric guitar solos, as on a epic, 12-minute, live version of "Hard on Me," featured on disc four of "Walking On A Wire." Reviewing the set, Spin magazine noted how this, "brilliantly idiosyncratic instrumentalist has transformed the guitar into a hybrid of the dulcimer and bagpipes."
"I grew up listening to Celtic music, but it didn't seem relevant to my life at the time," he reports. "Scottish traditional music was in the house, but it wasn't as exciting as Buddy Holy or even Duke Ellington. I became a rock 'n' roll musician, and then in Fairport in '68 when we started to play some traditional music, something clicked with me. I thought I sort of know this stuff, this is familiar, this is the music of one's soul if you come from a Celtic background. It's an expression you're not going to get in another way. It was an exciting point for me, and a point from which I really didn't look back. I'm still very Celtic influenced. It's a good thing to have different roots; I think it's a good thing that I don't sound like Eric Clapton."
Uniquely melding rock and traditional folk music, Thompson crafts memorable songs, sometimes bordering on the dour, that are often imbued with a characteristic droll wit. And thus the loony narrator of the tale "Business on You" seeks to cast a spell on a lover with "a drop of Elvis' sweat from Caesar's Palace," while the protagonist of "She Steers by Lightning" employs "Milton as a road map." On his caustic critique of "Fast Food," he observes, "shake's full of plastic, meat's full of worms, everything's zapped so you won't get germs."
Tending to favor writing about characters teetering on the edge, he explains: "When people are down and out, or in extreme situations, like they've been shipwrecked, these are the times when they're more likely to reveal their humanity. If you're a novelist or film director these are the kind of situations where it's easier to make whatever point you want to make about the human condition."
Of course being born and raised in a nation that celebrates eccentricity helps shape his quirky subject matter. "The British as a race are eccentric, that's the reason Britain has so many eccentric writers," he agrees. "Dickens was just looking around him and seeing all these bizarre characters out there. So I'm just in that tradition."
These British-centric gems have all been observed from afar for quite a few years, ensconced in his Los Angeles home. "It's good to get away sometimes from your own background and culture to get some perspective," he says.
"It could be said that James Joyce wrote very vividly about Dublin from Paris. As a writer you have an inner landscape that you carry around with you, which is to do with the sum total of your experiences. For me there's a kind of bleak atmosphere to songs that that I kind of like. Even if I'm sitting on a beach in Hawaii, I'm likely to compose something from an inner rather than an outer landscape."
Among the ambitious works he's released in recent years, in 2003 he produced a "1000 Years of Popular Music," a concert DVD and double CD, which ranged from an ancient celebration of the rebirth of spring composed in 1260, to madrigals and sea chanteys, and Britney Spears' hit "Oops! I Did it Again." The U.K. Times praised the feat as "utterly remarkable."
Then he collaborated with visionary German filmmaker Werner Herzog to create the soundtrack for the documentary "Grizzly Man," about Timothy Treadwell, who spent years in Alaska filming and living among the grizzly bears.
On his most recent album of new material, "Sweet Warrior," Thompson delivered a powerful collection of songs about conflict from the battlefield to the bedroom. "Guns Are the Tongues" unravels the tragic tale of a young man seduced into becoming a terrorist. And the startling "Dad's Going to Kill Me" vividly encapsulates the distress of soldiering in Baghdad.
"Dad's in a bad mood, Dad's got the blues," he sings. "It's someone else's mess that I didn't choose, at least we're winning on the Fox Evening News."
"I got fairly strong responses (to the song)," he reveals. "The response from soldiers was very positive, they said, thank you for singing about it, which was wonderful. The most negative response was from soldiers' families who felt I was questioning the reason they were there, and I got some hate mail from the usual right-wing loonies."
Having accomplished so much over the years, at 60, Thompson's eager to expand his palette and tackle more ambitious projects.
Inspired by Homer's "Odyssey," he just composed a commission for the International Society of Bassists, an extended song cycle called "Cabaret of Souls," about a talent contest set in hell.
"After you've released albums of songs you're thinking what else can I do," he modestly suggests. "What else is within my abilities, and it's good to test the limits of your abilities. 'Cabaret of Souls' is like a 30-section piece of music almost an hour-and-a-half long, and I had to write all the string parts for chamber orchestra. I really had to test myself on several levels to pull it off. It's a contest in purgatory, it's satirical. I'm now ambitious to do a couple more longer projects."
Throughout his lengthy career this virtuoso musician has ploughed a unique path characterized by unflagging, uncompromising artistry. "These days it's a virtue to be an individual as a musician, mostly because it's a crowded profession," he notes. "Everybody loves music and has an opinion about music, and there are thousands of musicians so it's more of a virtue than ever to stand out from the crowd. If you can sound different, your guitar tone can be different, if your songwriting roots are different, so much the better. Whatever individuality you have, now is the time to champion the difference rather than the similarities. Trying to knock the rough spots off your music so it sounds smoother to get on the radio is a huge mistake. Viva the difference I say."
When he's not out on the road with a band, Thompson often tours with esteemed bassist Danny Thompson, and he just completed a "Loud & Rich" tour with Louden Wainwright III. For his latest Maui gig, he will perform solo.
"It's insane isn't," he jokes. "To stand on stage alone is a basic act of insanity. You've got no one to turn to, you can't blame anybody else. But it's a great test of who you are as a musician, if you can stand up alone on stage and entertain people then I think you can say I can do this job. I love the variety of playing solo or with Danny or electric with a band. I sometimes think I should perform these big, all action shows, but it's a little dishonest."
Cecilio and Kapono recently released their first new studio recording in 20 years. Their last studio project, the multi-Hoku- Award winning "Good Times Together," was produced in 1988. Now arrives "C&K," an eight-song album capturing the distinctive vocal blending and sunny sound of Hawaii's most popular duo.
"We thought we'd surprise everybody," says Henry Kapono. "It's been 20 years so we thought we might as well get in the studio. We recorded it in May, and I wrote four songs and C wrote four songs. It was nice to do something new. We had a good time doing it and the response has been great. We'll play a couple at our concert."
Returning to the Castle Theater for their annual reunion on Saturday, the duo spent Monday on Molokai presenting a free community concert and playing for school kids as part of the MACC's Artist in the Community Program.
On Sunday afternoon in Honolulu, Henry performed at a "Kokua for the Pacific" benefit with a host of leading local artists including Amy Hanaiali'i, Sean Na'auao, John Cruz, Robi Kahakalau, Ten Feet, Jimmy Borges and Brother Noland.
The show raised funds for victims of the tsunami in the Samoan Islands, the typhoons in the Philippines and the Indonesian earthquake.
"It was very successful, a great thing to do," Henry reports. "I have friend who just lost his wife and child in the Philippines - they went over there for a vacation. I wrote a song for him called 'Love Shines,' which I played at the concert."
Besides the new C&K album, Kapono just released a DVD, "The Wild Experience," shot at the Hawaii Theater in 2006, along with a companion CD of his landmark, Grammy-nominated recording of rocking, Hawaiian language compositions.