Linda Thompson turns on the lights
Maybe you've heard this story before: after Richard and Linda Thompson's legendary 1982 Roxy performance in support of their Shoot Out the Lights album, Linda collapsed backstage and was spirited off to Malibu by Linda Ronstadt. Thompson's marriage was breaking up before the tour and singing songs about a breakup, which Richard insisted at the time were not autobiographical, was just too much for her. It was easily one of the most memorable live musical experiences I've had-especially since I went with my ex-girlfriend who'd broken up with me a few months earlier.Maybe you've heard this story before: after Richard and Linda Thompson's legendary 1982 Roxy performance in support of their Shoot Out the Lights album, Linda collapsed backstage and was spirited off to Malibu by Linda Ronstadt. Thompson's marriage was breaking up before the tour and singing songs about a breakup, which Richard insisted at the time were not autobiographical, was just too much for her. It was easily one of the most memorable live musical experiences I've had-especially since I went with my ex-girlfriend who'd broken up with me a few months earlier. That allowed me to double the intensity of the pain emanating from the stage.
I interviewed both the next day and the contrast was almost comical: Linda poured her heart out about the emotional difficulties of the previous evening's performance when I spoke to her poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel. Later that day at a record company office, when I asked Richard about the previous evening's "difficulties," he blithely deflected the obvious intent of the question with something like "Ah, yes I had all kinds of difficulties with my amplifier."
After the couple finally split, Linda issued One Clear Moment; Richard the bitter, searing From Across a Crowded Room. While fans pulled for Linda, the record, a collaboration with Betsy Cook, was marred by 1980's style synthesizer arrangements that severely diminished the power of some fine song writing. Then in 1988 disaster struck: Linda came down with a case of dysphonia-a condition that left her unable to sing-and she was forced to stop work on her second solo album.
During her decade-plus long silence she continued writing though she receives solo writing credit for just two of the album's ten tunes. Five were co-written with son Teddy, and one with Rufus Wainwright. One of the remaining two was written by Teddy, the other by Lal Waterson.
For lovers of the 1960's/'70s folk-rock scene, the veteran's roster on this record is overwhelming; Dave Mattacks, Danny Thompson (no relation), Dave Pegg, Martin Carthy, Jerry Donahue, Richard Greene, and Kathryn Tickell. Joining Teddy from the next generation of folkies are Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Eliza Carthy and his sister Kamila. Other familiar names (to some of you at least) sprinkled throughout the credits include Van Dyke Parks, Geoff Muldaur, Phil Pickett, Joe Boyd, and the venerable engineer/mixer John Wood who twiddled the knobs on virtually every "classic" Richard, and Richard and Linda Thompson record. Also, longtime Thompson family supporter and fan Edward Haber, who produced. Almost forgot Richard Thompson: he plays guitar on the opener "Dear Mary".
All of these names wouldn't matter a whit if Thompson didn't deliver vocals on par with her memorable performances on countless R&L Thompson albums. She does, sounding supple and remarkably unchanged. Maybe shutting up for a decade preserves the cords or something like that.
Beyond Thompson's compelling vocal performance, the standout here is super-talented son Teddy, a genuine chip off the old musical blocks. I saw him accompany Richard on a few tunes during one of dad's exquisite solo turns last year, and accompanying Rufus Wainwright in what seemed like a terrifying evening opening for Roxy Music at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Wainwright seemed jumpy, but Teddy's ballast kept the performance from becoming totally unhinged.
Teddy anchors this set with equal skill as a songwriter, co-songwriter, guitarist, backing vocalist and co-vocalist on the Waterson track "Evona Darling." His wistful "All I See" is up there with "A Heart Needs a Home" and other highlights of his dad's '70s output. First line: "I miss you tonight/In the company of new friends/I can't seem to speak my mind." Have you been there? Jerry Donahue's exquisite electric guitar track augments the misery and with Dave Mattacks on drums, the tune weighs heavy as intended.
"Dear Mary," the waltzing opener, features the entire family (R&L, T&K), and if you're a fan who lived through their trauma, hearing them making beautiful music together will be a delayed, long overdue balm. Richard delivers an uncharacteristically lighthearted and delicate electric guitar part and the harmonies are precisely delivered as only a family unit can.
There's plenty of sadness and melancholy, but of course what's missing from R&L Thompson albums is Richard's slashing wit and clever wordplay. You can't have everything, but Linda's warmth permeates every corner of this set and it more than compensates for the edge some listeners may miss. The final track, Linda and Teddy's wry "Dear Old Man of Mine," is a family affair performed by the 3 Thompsons (Linda, Teddy and Kamila). Opening line: "Here's to the man that we thought was dead/singing like he's got a gun to his head/hanging off sweet notes and a thread/dear old man of mine." Now who can that be?. Another line: "Here's to the dream that went awry/here's to the tears I could not cry." Is the song a final, bittersweet statement about the saga of Richard and Linda? No doubt.
Despite being recorded all over the world (basic tracks were recorded in the UK, in NYC, in North Carolina, and in Los Angeles) with numerous engineers at the boards, the sound is quite natural, intimate, and remarkably uniform throughout, with Linda's unadorned and closely miked voice sounding particularly convincing . No way it could be "pure" analog-I suspect DATs or a hard drive recorder were carried from country to country given that every song required more than one venue to complete-but the sound is warm, round and hardly "digital" and for whatever magical reasons, the LP sounds richer, more vivid and more convincing, though my review sample was noisy and not particularly well pressed. Make sure your vinyl vendor will take returns on defects in case my copy was indicative of the lot. For Richard and Linda Thompson fans, a must. For others, if you like British folk and folk-rock, a strong "maybe." As we report in the news section, there was a recall of the original pressing with free replacement copies offered for defective ones, so by now (Spring '03) all available copies should be fine.*
The fairer half of the famous folk-rock duo finally returns with an album worth waiting for. A family affair with son Teddy's all around excellent assistance and a guest guitar turn by ex-Richard help make this comeback memorable.
*On May 30th, we received an email from producer Haber alerting us to the fact that the music was "mixed to 1/2" analog tape" (which doesn't clarify how it was recorded, of course, so we're asked for a clarification). However, Haber claims that the LP was cut from a Rounder CD, and that the LP producer never asked for analog tape. If verified, this is absurd. It is not surprising that the LP actually sounds somewhat warmer and more inviting than the CD. Analog is used to warm up digital all the time.