Last winter I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson again in concert. He is one of my favorite musicians and it had been a few years since I saw him last, so I was really happy to have heard about the show in time to get tickets.
What made it even more special is that I brought along two friends who had never heard him play before. These two men are fans of all the great guitarists of our era, but they’d never considered Richard Thompson to be among them. To them, he was a fringe name in a field of much more important players. But I raved about his playing and they (mostly) trust my judgment, so off we went.
All it took was the opening song for both of them to change their minds completely. Thompson was in fine form, electrifying from the first notes, and as the last chord faded one friend leaned over and said, “Too bad he’s having an off night.”
Later, my other friend said that it ws the best live show he’d ever seen. He was raised in a musical family and has been going to concerts since he was a boy, so at first I didn’t know whether he was being serious. But he went on, describing the many things that Richard Thompson does brilliantly: his virtuosic guitar work, with traditional ballads, obscure dance music forms, and hard-driving rock; his songwriting, which spans every emotional tone and genre with biting lyrics and beautiful melodies; his voice, which is completely distinctive and suits his songs perfectly; and most especially, his dynamic stage presence as a performer.
As he rattled off his list, I thought of the story of the Celtic God Lugh. Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, and is the father of Cúchulainn, the great Irish hero. But my favorite story is of how he gained entry to the court of Tara before the battle.
Lugh knocked at the door and was challenged by the doorkeeper, who asked him what service he had to offer the king. Lugh declares that he is a skilled wright, to which the doorkeeeper replies that the king already has one of those.
In a highly ritualized exchange, Lugh then goes down the list of things he excels at: he is a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcer, a craftsman. Every time, the doorkeeper refuses him entry because the king already has someone who excels at each skill.
Finally, Lugh asks if the king has one person who does all of those things. The doorkeeper has to admit that there is no one in Tara who is a master of all skills, and he opens the door for Lugh.
As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population. It is relatively easy to admire those who excel at just one or two things, because we understand where they fit in the social fabric. Among musicians, Jeff Beck is a great guitarist; Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist; Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter; Bruce Springsteen is a great performer.
We find it harder to accept those who have developed multiple talents into finely-honed skills, because the combination is so rare. Someone like Richard Thompson, who excels at so many things, may find it hard to achieve the recognition he deserves, because he is not just one thing.
Or at least, that is how I make sense of the fact that Richard Thompson is not more well-known. Being a Son of Lugh is not the easy road to recognition. Incidentally, to my friend’s list of things that Thompson excels at, I would add his gift for bringing myth to life. Fairport Convention was, after all, instrumental in popularizing Celtic folk songs like the Ballad of Tam Lin, reviving them with an electric sound.
You can hear that vein of bringing new life to old material in Thompson’s playing even now. That is, if you have heard him play live. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for?