Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years Of Popular Music - The Lowry, Salford - 18/01/09

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Imagine getting the chance to see Constable paint, or Shakespeare write, or Nureyev dance. That's what it's like seeing Richard Thompson play guitar.

Ever since his days with Fairport Convention in the late 60s, and through four decades of solo career since, he has carved out a reputation for being the best of the best, a true master of his art.

Now imagine seeing Constable painting-by-numbers, Shakespeare filling out a crossword, or Nureyev dancing the Hokey Cokey. It would be bizarre, fascinating ... and yet ultimately disappointing and dull.

So it is with Thompson's 1,000 Years Of Popular Music show, in which the great musician puts aside his own brilliant body of work and becomes a human jukebox, an historical tribute band, and churns out songs dating from the first millennium right up to pop hits of today.

It's an academically appealing musical idea that, perhaps oddly, would be far better done by someone who is less of an artistic powerhouse. For no matter how well Thompson sings a medieval madrigal, or a Purcell aria, or a Cole Porter classic, or even an Abba hit, there's always the feeling that we'd all be happier if he'd just play his own fabulously dark, stunningly original music.

There are occasions when the show comes to life, most notably when he dips into the folk tradition which helped form the bedrock to his own career. His version of Twa Corbies (The Two Crows - which for some reason he thinks is called The Three Crows) is terrific, as too is a suitably cutting Black Leg Miner.

But while the rest of the show is often interesting - given variety by input from singers and instrumentalists Deborah Dobkin and Judith Owen - it's also lacking in depth and direction, and some of it just doesn't work at all. Also, there was little attempt to explain why he had chosen the songs he performed, no mention of their merits or importance.

Oddly, the more ancient material was the most entertaining, if only for its novelty value, but there's something distracting and dull about watching a genius like Thompson noodling his way through an obscure Kinks' track, a Gilbert and Sullivan song or a mediocre music hall number.

At one point someone in the sold-out audience had the nerve to shout out for one of RT's own songs, and the black-bereted guitarist wrinkled his nose.

"We are not doing that kind of thing here," he tried to quip, but it was too late. That unrequited request pricked the conceit of the show.

It voiced exactly what I was thinking - why was Thompson wasting his time, and ours, with these curiosities when his self-penned catalogue is so very much more relevant, entertaining and important?

PHIL WIDDOWS

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