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Richard Thompson Walking on a Wire Review

Compilation. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

A national treasure, for sure.

Chris Jones 2009

Look up the word 'cult' in a dictionary and you might as well see the picture of Richard Thompson. His triple armoury of sonorous voice, concise and moving songwriting and (not least) his supernatural guitar skills inspire a well-deserved slavish devotion amongst the indoctrinated. With that in mind a new complilation of his past glories is always a welcome reminder of why we love him, even if it is a little odd for an artist who's already had at least two box sets and several compilations released under his name.

While the previously released box sets have either mixed studio with live or rare cuts (Watching The Dark (1993)) or been totally composed of rarities (Free Reed's amazing 5 CD set, RT (2006)), Walking On A Wire mostly consists of already available material, mainly culled from his studio albums. It's a straight chronological journey starting with the precocious psychedelic folk of his earliest days with Fairport Convention, stopping off along the way to invent folk rock and thence into his solo career both with and, ultimately, without partner Linda. Pretty much all of the first two discs is as close to perfect as you can get: filled with the dark, blackly humorous tales of human weakness and lost love. Highlights are meaningless, though, if pushed, you could point at his solo on Sloth from Fairport's Full House (1970), the brass band-assisted joy of I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight or the heartbreak and fugue of Dimming Of The Day/Dargai from 1975's Pour Down Like Silver.

The set's second half does include more live material as well as his fine material with everyone's favourite stand up bass player, Danny Thompson (no relation). And because this carries us up to the present day there's room for a track from his incredible soundtrack album to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005). Kudos as well for the inclusion of a live rendition of Persuasion, co-written with Split Enz's Tim Finn and one of his greatest compositions.

For all those who count themselves fans, Walking On A Wire is frankly of little interest other than as an exercise in picking out obvious omissions. This writer bemoans the inclusion of only one track (Valerie) from Dangerous Adventures (1986), his first foray with Mitchell Froom at the helm, or the the lack of anything from live album Small Town Romance. This aside, it's a near-perfect selection that paints a true picture of his development as an artist who, like the Velvet Underground, has probably influenced and aided more careers rather than experiencing due reward for his own work.

In the end it's a peculiar middle ground that this set covers. Too mainstream for Thompson nuts, despite the 60-page booklet written by Patrick Humphries, and yet too large to interest the really casual listener. And quite honestly, if you belong to the latter category then shame on you. Go out and buy at least all of his Island label classics immediately. That should put you on the right path. But despite all of this, Walking On A Wire does have a brilliant historical grasp and a near perfect track list, even if it holds no surprises. And more importantly; it reminds us that the man is still out there, performing regularly and writing amazing music. A national treasure, for sure.

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