Folk review: Richard Thompson: 1,000 Years of Popular Music, Barbican, London

Barbican, London

Richard Thompson is one of the veteran heroes of the English music scene thanks to his songwriting and guitar-playing, so it's ironic that one of his most successful projects to date involves none of his own songs and only a few dazzling guitar solos. Thompson's 1,000 Years of Popular Music is a quite ludicrously brave show in which he sets out to cover absolutely anything, from Italian renaissance styles and folk ballads to opera, music hall, country, early rock'n'roll, or contemporary pop. Amazingly enough, this quirky concept works because Thompson treats every style with equal respect, musical skill, and a charmingly entertaining barrage of bad jokes.

He was backed by the percussionist and singer Debra Dobkin and the pianist and singer Judith Owen. The latter deserves to emerge as a celebrity in her own right thanks to her subtle theatrical approach (hair tied back for the first 900 years, hanging loose for the pop era) and her ability to constantly switch styles, showing off a fine soul-jazz voice on Cole Porter's Night and Day.

Helped by a changing display of paintings and photos projected above the stage, Thompson started in the medieval era, negotiating a tricky batch of opening songs that included a 12th-century hurdy-gurdy piece, before moving on to a three-part Elizabethan madrigal and a piano-backed excerpt from Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. By the time he reached the 19th century he was on furious form, with a pounding, angry treatment of Black Leg Miner followed by the bittersweet music hall favourite I Live in Trafalgar Square and a dash of Gilbert and Sullivan. The second half, devoted to the 20th century, included a fine, drifting treatment of the Kinks' See My Friends, followed by a burst of Abba and a switch between Nelly Furtado's Maneater and medieval Latin. No one else on the planet could pull this off.

• At the Lowry, Salford Quays, tomorrow. Box office: 0870 787 5780. Then touring


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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