After four decades of distinctly British-bred music, a tenure that has seen him celebrated as one of contemporary music's finest songsmiths and guitarists, Richard Thompson has a new title: O.B.E.
That stands for officer of the Order of the British Empire, and it is an honor bestowed by the queen of England. Of course, in a fashion that has suited Thompson well over the years, it's not an honor he makes light of or boasts about unduly.
"It was an excuse to get dressed up and go down to the palace," said Thompson, who returns to Lexington for a solo acoustic concert Tuesday. "You know, you're required to dress up like a British prime minister from 1900 — the top hat, the tails, the whole bit. But it's a great honor. While it was something I wasn't really expecting, I'm glad that it helps shine a light into my area of music, that it makes people aware of British roots music."
His O.B.E. was awarded "for services to music." In Thompson's case, those services have traveled boldly through the decades, combining an alert, literate and immensely human gift for storytelling with songs that regularly reflect British folk elements through the centuries. Along the way, Thompson, 62, also has forged a reputation as a guitarist equally at home within the electric environment of a band and the solo setting of an ingeniously complete acoustic player.
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Such a history begins with the groundbreaking British folk rock band Fairport Convention, with which Thompson spent the late '60s and very early '70s. Fairport proved a launching pad for Thompson's sound, songwriting and, eventually, solo career along with a series of outstanding albums with ex-wife Linda Thompson that culminated with the 1982 treatise on romantic dissolve, Shoot Out the Lights. Not surprisingly, Thompson's ties to Fairport Convention remain strong.
"I suppose the kind of musical philosophy that Fairport arrived at in the late '60s is something I still subscribe to," he said. "I haven't really moved from that position much. As we looked around the music scene in Britain back then, there were lots of blues bands and lots of soul bands. The musical influences all seemed to be coming from America. Fairport always felt that was slightly dishonest, that we should be putting more of ourselves into it. We felt we should be playing a kind of popular music that reflected our own roots.
"And that's really what I'm still trying to so. I embrace rock music because that's long been the common currency of music. But I like to put a lot of our tradition to that music."
While early Fairport Convention albums such as 1969's Liege and Lief remain cornerstones of such electrified British folk, Thompson's newer recordings still show similar inspirations — from the Dickensian reflection of She Sang Angels to Rest from 2007's album Sweet Warrior to the elegiac hymn Among the Gorse, Among the Grey from 2010's Dream Attic.
The latter recording offered an artistic challenge. Instead of fleshing out the album's music in a recording studio, he recorded all of its 13 tunes during a series of winter concerts last year along the American West Coast.
"We did very little post-production work," Thompson said of the resulting album. "The vocals are live, the guitar solos are live. Everything is as we played it. And that can be a pretty tough business. But I think it turned out very well considering. The songs are strong. I'm still happy to perform a lot of that material."
Thompson is merging the past and present a little more directly than usual during his concerts this fall. His nightly set lists include a segment of tunes from one of 17 albums. Which Thompson/Fairport Convention recording will be highlighted at what show is left purely to chance.
"All the album titles go into a hat. I draw one randomly every night.
"It's a funny business to be in when you perform music from what might be the distant past. You might be performing songs you wrote when you were 18 years old. Now, a song you wrote when you were 18 you might be reluctant to perform, but it could be a very popular song with the audience. So this can be a strange thing to do. Sometimes you just have to forgive yourself for being an immature human being when you wrote it.
"Then again, if you paint a picture you might sell it to a private collector in Tierra del Fuego. In that case, that's the last you ever see of it. It's gone. But to keep revisiting the past and finding new meaning in these songs can be quite strange. You have to keep reinventing and reinterpreting the songs because you can't perform them meaninglessly. You have to find something exciting and energizing in the music."