A new collaborative album explores the British folk great’s roots in Vaudeville
Show business can take a toll on relationships when two partners are teamed together. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez were once the perfect pair prior to a most divisive divorce. Referencing those in rock realms, one need only consider Sonny and Cher, the Civil Wars, the White Stripes, and Tim and Nikki Bluhm as tragic casualties that nearly capsized some careers. However the frayed marriage of Richard and Linda Thompson may be the most dramatic dissolution of all. During their final tour together in the summer of 1982, the duo that recorded stark narratives like “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “Wall of Death” and “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” were tangled up in quite a soap opera of their own. Audiences often witnessed them engage in physical altercations onstage and following their final string of shows, they weren’t speaking to one another at all.
Tour guitarist Simon Nicol, once Richard’s bandmate in the initial incarnation of Fairport Convention, described the tour as being “like walking on a tightrope,’ and that once onstage, all he wanted to do was, in his words, “look for the exit.”
The frayed state of their partnership ultimately took a physical toll on Linda. She lost her voice as a result of a condition called spasmodic dysphonia and, after releasing one album in the immediate aftermath of the split–the brilliant One Clear Moment– disappeared for the better part of the next 17 years. She reemerged with the aptly titled Fashionably Late in 2002, and has only released two further solo albums since — Versatile Heart in 2007 and Won’t Be Long Now in 2013.
One might guess that her confidence was shaken, and indeed, her most striking entry in recent years is the family effort that featured contributions from ex-hubby Richard, son Teddy and the couple’s daughter Kami. Other extended members of the brood participated as well, giving Linda ample coverage and perhaps, opportunity to reclaim her confidence.
The fact that she again takes the role of compere on My Mother Doesn’t Know I’m On Stage suggests a reluctance to step into the spotlight all on her own. With Teddy, Richard and a sprawling cast of reliable recruits tackling the bulk of the material, she’s basically waiting in the wings. It’s just as well; the material is made up of mostly old vaudeville and music hall standards — “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and Martha Wainwright’s haunting version of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” being the best known of the bunch — and given the bare bones arrangements, the playful patter between songs and the traditional take on the material, there would be little opportunity for Linda to interject her own personality even if she was so inclined.
Thompson may play more the role of director than star on her latest LP, and perhaps its where she is most comfortable at this stage of her career. But remember, the majority of Mother was recorded back in May 2005 in performance at London’s Lyric Hammersmith, featuring the likes of Irish folk singer Cara Dillon with Sam Lakeman, actor Colin Firth, cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, Jools Holland with the actor Roy Hudd, concertina player Roger Digby, music director Michael Haslam, Stephen Large of Squeeze, James Walbourne of The Pretenders and The Rails, and George Hinchliffe of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, evoking the bygone era that eschews the hurt of Thompson’s history in favor of the wanton revelry of an era in pop history that seems so far away in 2018.
Of course it sometimes takes awhile to recover one’s confidence after a relationship is torn asunder. It can affect anyone both personally and professionally. Whether Linda Thompson still feels she’s lingering in the shadow of her ex is obviously a matter of conjecture. But suffice it to say that for the time being anyway, she’s still figuring how she can walk her way back.
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