Richard Thompson – Walking on a Wire: Richard Thompson (1968-2009)

January 01, 1970

(Shout! Factory)



The title for Richard Thompson’s four-disc box set seems a
bit odd, since that particular song was sung by his then-wife Linda Thompson on
1980’s Shoot Out the Lights. She
completely owned its ache and recrimination, and the quaver in her voice aptly
evokes the precarious emotional balance of a high-wire walker or a woman in a
tempestuous marriage. Considering their tumultuous relationship and alleged
cruelties, “Walking on a Wire” is perhaps not the best summation of Richard’s
forty-year career in Brit-folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, with Linda as
a duo, and as a solo artist, reducing a tragic metaphor to a rather easy pun
about guitar strings.


Career-wise, Richard Thompson didn’t necessarily walk a
wire. Instead, he took enormous strides all over the British Isles, so to
speak. As a singer, songwriter, and especially as a guitar player, he traversed
genres easily and gracefully, enamored with Celtic folk traditions and American
r&b rhythms and unafraid to blend them irreverently. On Thompson’s songs,
there are no fine lines between sounds and styles; in fact, the joy of sitting
down with Walking on a Wire is in
hearing the ways he blurs the distinctions. On the early cut “Roll Over Vaughn
Williams,” Thompson bends his notes to sound like a bagpipe, and “Valerie”
kicks off with a Sun Records guitar lick, then morphs into a gig, then nearly
falls apart before Thompson stitches everything back together with a short,
strange solo.


While most of his 60s contemporaries came to rock via blues
and favored an ostentatious playing style that always let you know when they
were soloing, Thompson approaches rock through a folk tradition, which gives
his playing much more variety and modesty. He may never have achieved the
rock-god status of Clapton or Page, but he has a lot more tricks up his sleeve.
Although it lacks some of his notorious cameos (on albums by John Martyn, John
Cale, Nick Drake, and Michael Doucet), Walking
on a Wire
ably shows the breadth of his guitar playing, which grew with
every album. The picking on the gorgeous “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” is eloquent
and restrained, but while the electric noodling on “Main Title from Grizzly
Man” (from the excellent Werner Herzog doc) manages to be both pensive and


As a singer and songwriter, Thompson is equally witty and
inventive, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of metaphors for crumbling
marriages, cracked worldviews, and middle-aged ennui. And he sings them in a
sharp, deep tenor that can sound hurt and hurtful at once, acidulously
sarcastic or intensely sorrowful.  The
primary accomplishment of this set is not only presenting all three sides of
the musician, but weighting them equally, as if the singing, songwriting, and
guitar playing all fed each other and without one, the remaining two would
suffer irrevocably. Thompson didn’t walk on a wire, but on three at once.


STANDOUT TRACKS: “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away,” “The Calvary Cross,” “Walking on a Wire,”
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Cooksferry Queen” STEPHEN M. DEUSNER


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