One-night millennium

So how does one go about condensing a millennium’s worth of music into a one-evening performance? Well, singer/songwriter Richard Thompson can’t exactly tell us, as by his own description he was “cheating” when he came up with the title “1,000 Years of Popular Music” for the show that he brings to town on Sunday. What started off as a literal, bluff-calling answer to a 1999 request from Playboy magazine that Thompson name the top 10 songs of the previous thousand years has, in fact, become a recurring staple of Thompson’s performance repertoire.

Oops … he did it again: Richard Thompson isn’t afraid to put the music of Britney Spears among the best popular music of the millennium. Photo By Ron Sleznak

Starting, more or less, with the year 1068 and ending at the new millennium (with an earnest, un-ironic cover of Britney Spears’ “Oops … I Did It Again,” no less), Thompson covers a lot of ground. Joined onstage by keyboardist/vocalist Judith Owen and percussionist Debra Dobkin, he reduces chestnuts from the ages to bare-bones arrangements that reveal the songs in a kind of naked essence. Thompson even takes a stab at Gilbert and Sullivan.

As his fans who go back with him to his Fairport Convention days know, Thompson—a musician’s musician who is highly acclaimed among his peers—is no stranger to folkloric music, having steeped himself for decades in various popular-music idioms from both sides of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, the “1,000 Years” show still required him to actively expand his boundaries.

“Turning it into a show has required a lot of research,” Thompson explains. “And every time that we tour it, we try to change up some of the material. I’ve gathered a lot of research material. I have a lot of books. It’s a lot of fun to go through that process. It’s pretty interesting when you actually discover a song as well. It might be something that the audience really responds to. And I think one of the nicest things about this show is that perhaps it’ll lead you to new musical areas that you never considered before.”

Like … Britney Spears?

“Well,” he says with a chuckle, “exactly. We want to lead a lot of people to Britney. But, you know, when we do a song like that, I suppose what we’re pointing out is that it’s actually a good song. Perhaps the performer may seem a little crass, but the actual song has good bones. It’s a well-structured pop song.”

Scanning the set list from a recently released CD/DVD package, listeners who haven’t seen the show yet might expect to get a case of whiplash. How do pieces such as “Sumer Is Icumen In” (from around the year 1260) sit side by side with, say, the popular radio staple “Tempted” by Squeeze? Thompson asserts that the songs have more similarities than differences.

“Chord structures haven’t changed that much in popular music,” he insists. “Sentiments haven’t changed that much. People drink and dance.”

And there’s always Thompson’s warm, crackling wit and casual delivery, both of which help thread the material together. Listeners can expect to be unfamiliar with at least half of the songs, but Thompson doesn’t take an overly reverent approach, which helps make the music accessible to the uninitiated.

“In a sense,” he explains, “we’re like amateurs. When we do something like Gilbert and Sullivan, we’re like an amateur operatic company. We’re kind of just doing our best. We’ll never be remotely up to classical standards, but it’s kind of fun to have a go.

“I think we kind of get away with it” he adds with a laugh, “rather than pull it off.”

A Muslim convert who has explored North African influences in the past, Thompson makes a point of focusing on Western forms, American and British in particular.

“This show is already ambitious beyond description without throwing in other cultures” he explains. “We could do another show of other cultures, but then you get into the realm of ‘Am I being a musical colonialist? Am I being a dilettante? Am I grabbing bits of this and that in a way that really doesn’t understand these other cultures or doesn’t properly represent them?’ I think you really have to immerse yourself in a form of music as much as possible to play it properly. In terms of Western culture, we can get away with that.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance writer.]

who: Richard Thompson presents “1,000 Years of Popular Music”
what: An evening of the classics from the last millennium
where: Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Jan. 20 (8 p.m. $28. or 225-5851)

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