Richard Thompson follows up his popular Acoustic Classics release from 2014 with a second volume, aptly titled Acoustic Classics Vol. II. It’s a handpicked selection of some of his currently most popular songs from his solo acoustic performances, hitting all the major periods of his 50-year career in folk-rock and what is now called Americana music.
The disc has 14 tracks, half of which are from his solo career pre-2000. These are “Devonside” from 1983’s Hand of Kindness, Thompson’s first solo studio album after the breakup of Richard & Linda Thompson; the tight-lipped rocker “She Twists The Knife Again” from the next one Across a Crowded Room; “Pharaoh” from 1988’s Amnesia; “Why Must I Plead” and “Keep Your Distance” from 1991’s breakout Rumor & Sigh; “The Ghost Of You Walks” from You? Me? Us? in 1997; and “Bathsheba Smiles” from 1999’s Mock Tudor, my favorite RT album.
Thompson of course was a founding member of Fairport Convention, which did for British folk music what The Band did for American folk. They’re celebrating their 50th year in 2017, and for the past few years Thompson has been featuring a few Fairport-era songs in his solo sets. He’s put a few on disc: the enigmatic “Genesis Hall” from 1969’s Unhalfbricking, the group’s third LP; “Crazy Man Michael” from their fourth, Liege & Leif; and the anthemic “Meet On The Ledge,” which was the band’s second single. That leaves two from his years with Linda, “Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair” and “A Heart Needs A Home,” and two from this century, “Gethsemane” from 2003’s The Old Kit Bag and “Guns Are The Tongues” from Sweet Warrior, the most recent but still 10 years old.
When I first saw the tracklist, I wondered why Thompson would offer new acoustic versions of “Pharaoh” and “A Heart Needs A Home” when there are perfectly good versions on the live Celtschmerz. Then I realized that, although that disc, still one of my favorites, seems recent to me, it was released in 1998. This is a chilling version of “Pharaoh” and particularly timely, given the state of the world in 2017. The vocals are strong and nuanced, the picking a beautiful example of RT’s acoustic technique, which is quite different from his electric style but just as intricate and creative.
The song also has varying levels of reverb applied to the vocals, an example of this record’s minimal but not non-existent level of production techniques – this is not just one guy with a guitar and one microphone. There’s some overdubbing, both of instruments and vocals, particularly notable on “Guns Are The Tongues,” where he plays both guitar and mandolin and applies backup harmonies.
I surprised myself by finding “Guns” and “Gethsemane” both among my favorites on Acoustic Classics Vol. II. The solo setting and these arrangements seem to lend themselves particularly well to these latter-day songs, both fairly intricate ballads. Likewise the older songs, “Genesis Hall” and “Crazy Man Michael.” Fifty years as a musician have only sharpened Thompson’s ability to put over songs like these.
The economics of being a popular musician with a steady following but not on the top tier have changed a lot in the past dozen years. Those like Thompson who have rolled with the tide have learned a few decent tricks, one of which is making albums like this. A good two-thirds of his live performances these days are solo acoustic, due to the expense of touring with a band and equipment. But he’s also making a lot of new fans through touring and public radio airplay. With these two acoustic albums, he now has merch for his new fans to buy online or at venues that matches their concert experience, updated versions of songs that go back 20, 30 and even 50 years.
This album is available bundled with a rarities disc that will be released later this year, via Pledge Music also on his own website. Thompson will be playing U.K. dates in October, and a few winter shows in the U.S. are already up, also on his website.