Richard Thompson will help reboot Meltdown

He may not be a publicist's dream, but the maverick musician will bring his forward-looking curiosity to this year's festival

The appointment of Richard Thompson as director of this year's Meltdown is good news, but champagne and fireworks aren't appropriate. An unassuming 60-year-old with a neat beard whose sole concession to showbiz is donning a black beret while on stage, Thompson looks more like Sooty's handler Matthew Corbett than a towering creative colossus. In terms of glamour, he's no match for previous directors such as David Bowie, while his aura may seem lacking in mystique and cutting edge credentials compared to last year's curator, jazz titan Ornette Coleman.

Far from a publicist's dream, then, but from a musical standpoint he's a fine choice. With access to vast depths of knowledge, Thompson's input should help reboot the event's stated desire to act as a forum for disparate strands of music, art, performance and film to entwine. It should certainly look a lot less like the alt-rock event it has tended towards under the recent guidance of Patti Smith, Morrissey (the man who booked the Ordinary Boys) and Jarvis Cocker, when the lineup was often hard to differentiate from that of countless other music festivals dotting the calendar. If nothing else, Thompson will bring forward-looking curiosity to the table rather than mere nostalgia.

Elvis Costello was the festival's first non-classical curator in 1995, and Thompson occupies a similarly hazy point on the musical landscape. Doggedly unaffiliated to any scene, trend or ethos, though nominally a folk artist, he's a fearsomely adventurous musician who ranges all over the firmament. He grew up loving jazz guitar and Scottish ballads, and helped blend folk and rock during his time with Fairport Convention. With his first wife, Linda, he plumbed the emotional depths of confessional singer-songwriting while also writing rude songs about licking lollipops.

A solo artist for almost 30 years, Thompson's music also taps into vaudeville, classical and Tin Pan Alley. He has scored films for Werner Herzog, made instrumental albums combining music from north Africa with Duke Ellington's Rockin' in Rhythm, and last year he premiered an extended piece of musical narrative scored for a chamber orchestra. Most impressively, his evolving 1,000 Years of Popular Music show travels from the 13th-century smash hit Sumer Is Icumen In to Britney's Oops, I Did It Again, taking in along the way Henry Purcell, Gilbert and Sullivan, Hoagy Carmichael, Abba and Prince.

If schedules align, we might reasonably expect a programme that attempts to cover a good portion of this ground. Though it may well feature crumhorms, fuzzy folkies and some no-brainer bookings (Thompson is friends with Loudon Wainwright III, while his son Teddy is buddies with the Wainwright offspring, so expect a gathering of those clans), it should reach far wider. Despite the fact that he has never been adopted by younger musicians as an emblem of hip folkery in the way that Bert Jansch or John Martyn have (partly because he's never been in need of "resurrection"), he should have no trouble attracting younger artists and admirers to the bill (Bob Mould seems a good bet), nor will he shy away from embracing a truly global lineup.

He may look like the quintessential suburban Englishman, but Thompson has lived in Los Angeles for nearly half his life and is drawn towards the east in both music and philosophy: an endlessly inventive guitarist, he favours Arabic and African scales – and Celtic drones – over blues notes; once a devotee of Sufism, he remains a practising Muslim.

I've interviewed him many times and he's constantly illuminating while giving very little away. Serious, with flashes of dry humour, he shies away from the cult of personality. Instead, he thinks deeply about music, its function in society, how and why it does what it does, and he certainly knows his stuff. The last time we spoke, he talked knowledgeably about gangsta rap and emo, and explained why he is often drawn to darker subject matters.

"In a song, often you're dealing with slightly troubling things below the spoken desires of the audience," he said. "As a songwriter, you look for those things. Sometimes it can be unsettling for the audience, especially the ones that deal with serious subjects, but because it's entertainment you can do it and the audience will go through that process – they almost like to be unsettled. It's part of the job."

So expect the unexpected, and expect to be challenged. And if being boss man at Meltdown also brings Thompson the wider kudos and general recognition he richly deserves, then so much the better.


Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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