Watching The Dark: The History of Richard Thompson
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Richard Thompson did not achieve overnight his now-acknowledged status as a pillar of British folk-rock, as a towering guitarist, and as a songwriter as distinctive and thematically provocative as any of his contemporaries. As late as 1980 when Thompson already had a formidable dossier of wonderful recordings with Fairport Convention as well as with his then-wife Linda, the would-be folk god was more cult artist than recognizable entity. This superb three-disc retrospective provides an intelligent overview of his evolution, avoiding the conventions of a "hits first" approach (silly in this case) or a completist's preoccupation with chronology and minutiae (dreary move, that). Instead, the discs shuttle back and forth across different period's in Thompson's career, swap excellent live performances and alternate takes for certain tracks, and let the music dictate the flow. That makes Watching the Dark as engaging for life-long Thompson fans as it will surely be for new recruits. --Sam Sutherland
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A Sailor's Life tells the story of a desperate young woman whose sweetheart sails to sea. She can't stand life without him so she sails off on her own to look for him....Sandy Denny sings with poise and pathos, a beautiful interpreter of English folk music, one of the best. That sort of ruddy strength of spirit, the ability to hone in on the emotional edges, sharpen them up and march into battle between your ears.
Fairport Convention first released a recording of this song on their album Unhalfbricking. That one is good, but it's got that dang violin mucking about during the epic solo. See, Sandy Denny has her own sweet vocal strings, and let's face it, I want the pure electric guitar solo without a pesky violin flashing alongside it. This alternate version from Richard Thompson's Watching the Dark has a whole lotta that, don'it guv'nuh?
The story builds in chapters. The first part is the introduction. People are gathered on the docks to bid farewell to their loved ones. The music sounds like the water lapping at the sides of the ship, maybe it's raining a bit. One sailor in particular is valued among all others by the woman he leaves behind, to weep and mourn.
The second chapter begins at 2:23, the woman asks her father to build for me a bonny boat, so she can go off looking for her sailor boy. I don't think that's a very good idea, but the father doesn't have a problem with it. He's probably like, 'and honey, will you try to find your mother as well? I think she's with them.'😆
The third chapter begins at 3:57, following a 0:45 musical interlude during which the guitars start preparing themselves for the finale. The drums during this section are really cool, lots of precise rolls, military-like. The drama is building, and after a short time a Queen's ship they chanced to meet. The young woman believes it to be the one that carries her sweet William, so she pulls up and asks the crew if he's there. They tell her
no, fair maiden, he is not here
For he's been drownded we greatly fear...
The final chapter begins right after this at 5:45. The fair maiden did not like hearing this, for then she wrung her hands and she tore her hair. Then she ends up crashing her boat against a rock and dying. How can I live now my sweet William is gone?
Too bad, lady. Anyhoo, at 6:45 or so, Richard Thompson untangles his guitar from the fishing nets with over four and a half minutes remaining. He prepares to unleash the raging spirit of the young woman upon the world. The drums and rhythm guitar are coming along, too. Is there any land on the horizon? yes! See over there at 7:56. This is when they all lock in together and head for the shore. Richard Thompson takes over here and blasts away at everything in their path. I frickin love this solo, it's so wiry and buzzy, like an electric dragonfly. On and on it goes, freaking out the kindly natives waiting for them on the beach. Oh, sorry, don't worry, I'm calming down, I'm tired of all this paddling through the ocean.
This is an essential collection of Richard's history and there are some rare things featured here that share a home with the well known RT songs. After "Watching The Dark" all the box sets that came forth after have had (for our benefit) used this set as the example of what to present in their packages. If you like Richard Thompson you need this collection.
Obviously a 3 CD-set will give a pretty good overview of this period of his career, but some might find it a little confusing that there is no strict chronology in the tracklisting. But musically I think it works very well.
The earliest tracks are Fairport Convention recordings; one from "Unhalfbricking", a fine alternate version of "A Sailor's Life" and the catchy 1970 single "Now Be Thankful".
In 1972 Thompson released his first solo album "Henry the Human Fly", which unfortunately did not sell very well. A shame as the album ranks with the very best of his albums; this the 3 tracks from the album here clearly document.
Most of my favourite Thompson recordings come from the period when he worked with his wife Linda. The duo released 6 albums during 1974-82, all of which are represented here; even the two hard to find Chrysalis albums "First Light" and "Sunny Vista". These two albums are often considered their weakest, but a song like "Strange Affair" is simply moving. Great to have the song here.
Thompson's later solo albums vary quite a lot in style and approach, but his strong influence by traditional British folk shines through on most songs.
With a 52 pages booklet with liner notes from Greil Marcus, a fine biography by Leslie Berman and detailed information about each track, this makes a great introduction to one of Britain's finest guitarists and songwriters of at least three decades.