From his curt lyrical looks at love and marriage come asunder to his piercing, six-string soliloquies done up in varying shades of blues folk and psychedelia, guitarist, singer, and composer Richard Thompson has never seemed musically melodramatic. "I'm not really a sentimentalist, no, but I love musical history, and sometimes I find myself far too fond of music I heard when I was a kid, like my father's French music 78s," says Thompson, recalling a dad who was both a Scotland Yard detective and an amateur guitar player. "There is, of course, the strange situation that the singer-songwriter finds himself in, where he performs songs he may have written decades before. Now, I wouldn't call that sentimentality for the performer, but it can be for the audience."
That audience of Thompson's will get several doses of him looking backward, what with the new reissue of his first band's finest material — that of the legendary folk-rock U.K. ensemble Fairport Convention and its genuinely haunting Come All Ye: The First 10 Years; a second volume of personal favorites from his own catalog, Acoustic Classics 2; and an intimate solo tour that brings him to Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre on Thursday.
For the uninitiated or the deeply indebted fan, London's Fairport Convention — cofounded by Thompson in 1967 and featuring the late Sandy Denny's dark dulcet vocals — gave birth to the elegant mix of British folk and rock that inspired everyone from the early Led Zeppelin, the nascent Jethro Tull, and the spookily atmospheric Dead Can Dance to latter-day indie-folkies such as Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart. Ask Thompson about pride in the craft and creativity of those earliest Fairport albums, such as Liege & Lief and the celebratory boxed set, and he enthuses. "Well, this year is a big year in Fairport terms — 50th anniversary of the band, so I have to sit up and pay attention. We had a very enjoyable reunion this past August, and I still believe it was a very important, influential band.
"What we did in Fairport is the very basis of what I do now. I play folk and rock with a strong British traditional influence. Musically, I borrow a lot from older English, Irish, and Scottish melody, and, lyrically, I learned so much from those old Scottish ballads that Fairport looked after."
On his newest solo album, Acoustic Classics 2, songs from beautifully blistering solo albums ripe with Thompson's rough soulful voice and frenzied "pick and fingers" guitar technique, such as Rumor and Sigh, Mock Tudor, and Amnesia, are broken down and made spare and acoustic, but hardly simple. There's a tense but tender complexity to everything Thompson has written since leaving Fairport Convention in 1971. Yet songs such as "Genesis Hall" and "Crazy Man Michael" — from Fairport albums such as Unhalfbricking and What We Did on Our Holidays — simply ache on the emotional tip. They pore over the history of British folk, swallow whole the then-new roar of rock, and spit them out anew with passion and invention.
Why did Thompson choose those Fairport tunes to deconstruct?
"The author always has the right to sing his own song, regardless of the other associations the song may have," says Thompson, curious as to what his new versions would sound like. "I think I play better now. I haven't lost much physical ability, and my vocabulary is better."
Looking backward and playing acoustically isn't the end of the road for Thompson. "I'm happy to get away from retrospection and go back to the present," he says.
He recently finished a new electric album, which will be out next year, very upbeat in tempo, and "good for dancing. That is, if you've paid absolutely no attention to dance trends for the past 50 years," he says with a laugh. "The Acoustic Classics 1 and 2 and even Acoustic Rarities were really intended for selling at live shows, rather than retail, but their popularity surprised me, so I see them now as filling a niche that I didn't know existed."
With that, Thompson is happy and proud to look at his folksy roots and time with Fairport with just an acoustic guitar strapped around his chest, and a whisper rather than a scream. "Folk music can be quite dark, as it deals with murder, war, the supernatural, social unrest, as well as romance and comedy," he says. "Growing up with that stuff, I came to think of it as normal. So I've never shirked from the serious side of lyrical content — but popular music is now mature enough to deal with heavier subject matter. I always throw in some good jokes, as well."