Millennium Man

Richard Thompson hits the road with 1,000 years of popular music

To put it plainly, Richard Thompson is the gap in your record collection—the guitar god you could have been writing graffiti for, and the singer/songwriter you should have been emulating in your dorm room.

Over the past 40 years, Thompson has produced an impossibly consistent catalog of quality work, evolving from the shy, guitar wunderkind of seminal British folk-rockers Fairport Convention into an accomplished solo artist. And while his is only a household name in the homes of a dedicated minority, the 58-year-old remains as determined and ambitious as ever, unwilling to rest on his laurels.

"Well, I don't have any laurels," Thompson says, chuckling. "I think I'm always just very dissatisfied with what I do—like there are other places to go, that I can do better, and that the work can reach a higher standard. I suppose it's good to be a little restless, you know? I haven't really achieved very much at all, and I'd like to achieve something. So I'm always driving myself forward. I'm always thinking, ‘Well, here's this project, but how about after that? Let's have another project and another project.' I'm always thinking in terms of projects. And it's just one step in front of the other. It keeps me going down the road."

Thompson's travels certainly aren't limited to the metaphorical kind, either. Still the consummate road warrior, he swings through every shape and size of concert hall, year after year, relentlessly delivering his fans the type of passionate, high-energy performances most gray-beard musicians wouldn't even care to attempt.

"Well, I think that variety helps the energy, perhaps," he says. "Variety stops you from becoming static as a musician, and it makes things less predictable for the audience. They can come and see you one year performing solo, and the next year with the band, and the year after that, it might be a special show like this 1,000 Years show."

Thompson is referring to one of his most popular pet projects yet: 1,000 Years of Popular Music. It's the format for his current tour, and believe it or not, it's exactly what it purports to be.

"Well, this show, it's kind of a review of popular music, from about 1,000 A.D. on," explains Thompson, who performs the shows with vocalist Judith Owen and percussionist/vocalist Debra Dobkin. "And I must say that we did cheat a bit, and that it really is songs that we like playing, rather than songs that were really popular, in some cases. But we do take on a really wide range of music—an absurdly wide range of music—starting with various forms of early music up through Elizabethan, madrigals, carols from the 18th century—and there's probably more of a concentration on music from 1900 onward, just because that's what we and the audience are more familiar with. So, you know, we cover Gilbert and Sullivan and jazz, gospel, country, and, well, everything!"

Thompson originally hatched the idea eight years ago, when Playboy asked him to join a number of other musicians in contributing a list of the best songs of the millennium. Rather than narrow that down to the latter half of the 20th century, like most of his peers did, Thompson actually took the challenge literally, reaching back hundreds of years for noteworthy tunes. Playboy predictably failed to print his unorthodox selections, but Thompson took the ball and ran with it himself, absorbing the millennium canon, so to speak, and turning the concept into a live show and a 2003 CD/DVD release.

"One of the joys of the show is to present this unfamiliar, almost forgotten music to the audience, and say, ‘Look, here's this kind of music from 1400 or 1800 or 1900, isn't this interesting? Isn't this great?'" Thompson says. "And perhaps the audience will be inspired to go and find more of the same."

It's even safer to assume that those fans will be inspired to hear more of Richard Thompson's own music, whether it's his oldest fans clamoring for classics like "Wall of Death" and "Dimming of the Day" or the new generation, downloading Thompson's 2007 anti-war song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" off the artist's website.

"Well, it's nice to see young faces out there...as the old audience dies off," he says. "But you know, it's always nice when people discover your music. Some people will say, ‘I found you on the Internet' or ‘My father turned me on to your music,' and I always find that really sweet and rewarding to hear."