Chris Thompson has a collectable new mini-album out this week. That Chris Thompson. Let GARY STEEL explain.
I remember watching Chris Thompson perform a set of acoustic blues songs on New Zealand television in the mid-to-late 1970s and thinking: “Can this really be the guy from Manfred Mann?”
Back then, I would put the family’s National transistor-cum-cassette player up close to the speaker on the TV and record just about all the music programmes, because in Hamilton, the radio was crap and there were very few outlets for music on television. I don’t remember precisely what the show was, but it may have been a segment on the Paul Holmes-fronted Grunt Machine, or perhaps even a self-contained show. It was common back then with all the technical difficulties television faced for them to keep short shows at the ready to play if the scheduling had gone haywire.
What I do remember – because I taped it and played it over and over – was thinking that this blues stuff is really quite boring. The guy was obviously some kind of expert, but he just wasn’t gruff enough or black enough to be totally convincing.
I found out not too much later that there were two Chris Thompsons from Hamilton, one of whom went to England and made the big-time singing for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (he’s the voice on their awesome version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Blinded By The Light’). The other one also went to England, played in Julie Felix’s band, got to know some of the leading lights of the UK’s folk-revival scene (Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Danny Thompson, et al) and eventually made his own folk-rock album, which quickly sank to obscurity but ended up several decades later becoming a sought-after cult item.
It turned out that the folkie Chris Thompson had gotten into blues some years later, and supported Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry during their mid-‘70s tour of NZ, during which he became a fast friend of the legendary McGhee.
In short, Thompson had a storied career in music both before and after my encounter with his televisual acoustic blues presentation, and it turns out that musically he’s a mercurial and rather eccentric artist who isn’t quite as easy to pin down as that TV show suggested.
Those who want to read more about this rather fascinating character should check out his AudioCulture profile here, and a listen to the self-titled 1973 album is recommended to anyone who likes the idea of a British folk album with psychedelic undertones manifested by an Indian influence with its droning Indian tanpura and puttering tablas.
Last year Pinenut released another album recorded in the UK in the early ‘70s called Drunken Nights In Dublin, and now there’s a new EP called Woodsheddin’.
Drunken Nights In Dublin consists of 13 tracks taken off rediscovered acetate, so the sound quality isn’t pristine. Lacking the consistency of his self-titled debut and at times lapsing into self-indulgence, it will be of interest to those who have enough curiosity to poke their snoot into the undergrowth looking for those elusive musical truffles.
Woodsheddin’ is yet another odds ‘n’ sods compilation of sorts, but the first side features some new songs that will help to provide a bridge from all the historic material to what he’s done lately.
Released on very limited 10-inch lathe-cut vinyl, cassette and CD-R, the mini-album features artwork – Indian ink on leather – by Eliza Webster.
The record opens with the title track, an alt-country number that oozes loneliness: “There ain’t no one round her just me and the dog.” ‘Ginger Man’ is a cover of the Geoff Muldaur song and features Thompson’s acoustic fingerpicking. ‘En Pensant de Ma Mere’ is an acoustic ballad for his mother.
Over on side we get the Luke Hurley-produced 1988 acoustic blues song, ‘The Road To Raglan.’ While it’s always nice to have local towns name-checked, the song wears a fairly rigid straitjacket and is standard fare. ‘Hometown Voodoo’ was recorded in 1983 with a famous rhythm section: Billy Kristian (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums). The audio quality is patchy, and it’s notable mostly for the funny/offensive lyrics: “I got no time for Auckland chicks… I can’t see beyond that old hometown voodoo… There’s nothing like a student girl if you’re feeling randy.” And so forth. Finally, ‘I Know What It’s Like’ is a song written in the early ‘70s but recorded at the same session as ‘Hometown Voodoo’, and it’s another electric blues where he’s lamenting the hardships and loneliness of life on the road.
Where the self-titled Chris Thompson hippy-folk album definitely has its charms, I find it much harder to work up enthusiasm for this latest release with its hotchpotch of styles and very little to make it all hang together as a project. Still, confirmed fans and completists will no doubt need it and who knows, if it gets enough traction maybe he’ll find his way to making a more cogent piece of work.
* Chris Thompson performs for free at the National Library, Wellington, from 12.10 pm to 1 pm, Wednesday November 20.