‘Storytelling music’: British folk-rock pioneer to perform in Newburyport | Lifestyles

Fifty years ago, as a 16-year-old musical wunderkind, Richard Thompson organized a band that would create a new style of music in England.

Thompson, an original founder of the legendary British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, would go on to an accolade-filled solo career that has taken him around the world.

He’ll be back in Newburyport this Saturday, performing the first concert at the newly renovated auditorium at Nock Middle School. The last time he performed in the city, there was a rare aurora borealis spanning the sky.

Thompson laughs when he is reminded of that.

“I think the fireworks will be of the musical variety this time,” he said.

By any measure, Thompson has been brilliantly successful as a performer and songwriter. He has been nominated for Grammy Awards, has won lifetime achievement awards from the Americana Music Association and the BBC, and has been awarded the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to popular music.

But Thompson isn’t one to bask in outside blandishments. He does have a personal metric for looking at whether he has succeeded.

“Well, it’s not always reliable, but you do need to have some sense of your own ability,” he said. “You need to have your own standards. You know it when the work has taken you two years to figure out how to play it, and what it means. You need to keep to your own instincts.”

Thompson’s instincts have been pretty good. He has worked steadily since the 1960s as a highly esteemed session guitarist, blending his sound with artists as diverse as Al Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, Pere Ubu, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bob Dylan, avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith, The Golden Palominos and Loudon Wainwright III.

Following his three years as a founding member of Fairport Convention, with their innovative foray into “electric folk” — the blending of traditional Celtic music with rock instruments — he spent much of the ’70s in a productive partnership with his then-wife, singer Linda Peters, before embarking on a solo career.

He has released more than 40 albums, and songs like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Wall of Death,” “Dimming of the Day” and “The Great Valerio” have been covered by the likes of Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Beausoleil, Glenn Frey, Tom Jones, David Byrne, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Robert Plant, REM, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. He is a songwriter’s songwriter.

“A writer always wants to get to the nitty-gritty — go inwards and find universal things — be more truthful,” Thompson said. “Be honest with ourselves. If you can do that in truthful way, you can really tap into something. I try to communicate ideas, emotions.”

Growing up in Northern England in the ’50s, Thompson was drawn to American country music, while many of his peers drew their inspiration from the blues.

“I always found country songs to be very much related to the Scottish and British folk music I grew up with,” he said. “Appalachian tunes come from Irish and Scottish tunes, the melodic roots very Scottish, so it’s not a huge stretch. It’s storytelling music, which comes from that tradition that I love. It also tells a very succinct story, which is wonderful, as well. It’s nostalgia music for a lost way of life.”

Still, much of the music that he writes is “fairly British-oriented,” but he has discovered that it translates well to the country genre.

“I’ve had a lot of songs covered by country artists. I’ve had a few hits on the country charts,” he said. “That is a surprise, and then, it is not a surprise. The styles are quite close — it’s only a short leap, so I think things are adaptable. I think often that people in a genre like country music are looking for something slightly different outside the genre. A style can become a bit cliched, and people are looking for fresh ingredients.”

Thompson has been touring for 50 years. The Newburyport show is a celebration of that journey and will feature songs from his entire career.

“It’ll be an acoustic show,” he said. “I’ll play a lot of stuff — from new songs to tunes that go back over 50 years with Fairport Convention, so I’ll be playing stuff that goes back that far. Some of my solo stuff, as well as a few covers.”

Thompson has two new acoustic albums being released in August.

“Yeah, I’m quite excited about that,” he said. “‘Acoustic Classics Volume Two’ and ‘Acoustic Rarities’ — songs that I haven’t released, or have only been covered by other artists. Stuff that’s been kicking around for a few years.”

After all these years, Thompson still thrives on contact with the audience and has a reputation as a strong live performer.

“I do enjoy it,” he said. “The ‘physics’ of touring can get tiring. You could kill yourself in a year, by going from a show in Germany to another in Alaska, then to New York. You have to work at a comfortable pace.”

And once he gets in front of the fans, any hassles of getting there are always worth it, he said.

“I love the energy of a live audience,” he said. “I’m someone in the room during a concert, sort of like the conductor. It is definitely a shared experience. I find myself wanting to take in every molecule of it.”


What: “An Evening With Richard Thompson”

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Nock Middle School, 70 Low St., Newburyport

How much: $55, with tickets available through www.heptunesconcerts.com 

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