The esteemed Brit troubadour Richard Thompson has been playing his millennial overview for six years now and not for a second has it grown tired or even obvious. A 30-song program consisting of tunes from as early as 1190 and as recent as the Britney Spears hit “Oops … I Did it Again,” Thompson has altered nearly half the program since he recorded “1,000 Years of Popular Music” in 2003. With historical anecdotes, wisecracks and an unshakeable British perspective, Thompson has created a gem of a work that’s as engaging as a night of him performing his own bracing, folk-oriented material.
In his own self-effacing way, Thompson suggests that he lacks the talent to sing 98% of the material. But who in his audience is well-enough versed in Italian songs and madrigals of the late 1590s, Newcastle coal-miner tunes from the early 1800s or even the British music-hall song “Trafalgar Square” to contest the integrity or veracity of his perf? With vocal assistance from Judith Owen, who delivers a fabulous “Cry Me a River,” and drummer-background vocalist Debra Dobkin, the program has an appropriate fullness in the sound, although they fare much better on rounds than on tunes that require exacting harmonies. It’s a sing-along, basically, for the trio — they make contagious fun out of the cerebral exercise of plotting centuries of music.
Of course, the spirited part comes when Thompson scrambles through the 20th century lining up songs from Nat King Cole, Wayne Cochran, the Kinks, Easybeats, Abba and Squeeze as paragons. Considering Thompson’s early days spent in Fairport Convention and the British folk revival of the 1960s, it’s intriguing to see him expertly work American country and jazz alongside British Invasion rock ‘n’ roll. So little sounds like his recorded work — it’s really only a Gilbert & Sullivan tune, the conversational “There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast,” that veers into Thompson’s own compositional rhyme scheme and temperament.
Thompson handles a fair share of his own releases these days, including a recent — and quite spectacular — boxed set “RT.” Cooking Vinyl, though, will release a DVD of “1,000 Years of Popular Music” on June 27. The first run will be accompanied by two bonus audio discs.