Season of the Son: Teddy Thompson Closes Out 2013 at Helsinki Hudson
By Robert Burke Warren
In a career spanning almost a decade-and-a-half, Teddy Thompson, the only son of folk icons Richard and Linda Thompson (pictured below in earlier days), has worn several hats; he’s been a sideman for Rosanne Cash and Rufus Wainwright, an acclaimed recording artist in his own right, a heralded journeyman performer, and a producer. He is a busy man. Yet, when RI catches up with him to discuss his upcoming December 20th solo show at Helsinki Hudson, he’s donned yet another chapeau: bass player.
“I can’t play at all,” he says in his soft London accent. (This will be the first example of frequent, amusing self-deprecation.) “I thought it would be easy, but it’s not.” Thompson, a Manhattanite, is sequestered in a New York City studio, putting finishing touches on what he calls “a family album,” featuring both his father and mother – a rarity to have them together – plus his siblings. All contributors are relatives, with Teddy producing. “There are no session players,” he says. Unlike the densely arranged, string-laden pop of his last album, 2011’s lush Bella, the as-yet-untitled disc will be pared down, mostly because, Thompson says, “no one in the family plays a classical instrument. Thank God. It’s quite a relief, because strings are too complicated for me to fathom right now. It’ll be very homemade-sounding, although everyone sounds frighteningly accomplished. It’s scary.”
When presented with the fantasy of a Thompson Family Travelling Show, a caravan tour in which the Thompsons – all noted performers, save reclusive mum Linda – drive from town to town like old time showfolk, Teddy laughs and says, “You’re way off. That’ll never happen. We probably won’t play live at all.”
Well. Working in an austere setting is good prep for the upcoming Helsinki Hudson date, which will be solo acoustic. It’s Thompson’s second gig at the venue. “It’s great,” he says of both the club and the town. “It’s a cultural oasis up there. And I haven’t been on the road much in 2013. We booked these shows (Helsinki and several others) because I’ve forgotten how to play a bit. I must keep these things moving, keep the machinery oiled.”
The machinery is, in fact, plenty oiled. Although he didn’t record an original CD in 2013, Thompson appeared on tributes to Nick Drake, Kate McGarrigle, and Paul McCartney. On the live front, attendees to his recent performances at Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater, and Albany’s The Egg, walked away wowed. And then there’s his NYC trio Poundcake, begun around the time he was working on Bella. The trio – drums, stand-up bass, and Teddy – performs originals, but also delves deep into the pre-1960 canon of early rock and pop, covering Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and the Everly Brothers, among others, to rapturous audiences. “Poundcake was a relief,” Thompson says. “To just play stuff, and not have to think about making it right, not looking at every little detail. It’s nice to have something that’s very free and loose. Bella was heavily produced, and I’ve reached my limit with that stuff. I yearn to do something quite opposite, which is where the family album and Poundcake came from; doing something live and simple.”
Performing his original material solo acoustic holds a particular allure for Thompson. “Playing solo gives you a lot of freedom,” he says. “I’m trying to get to a place where I’m relaxed in the same way I am as when I’m playing other people’s songs, when I’m playing 50s covers with my friends. You’re in a place that’s very loose. There’s a magical spot you want to get to, that’s as free as when you’re messing around playing somebody else’s music. There’s a nexus in there where you’re relaxed and focused, it’s an ideal performance state we’re all looking for.”
In addition to material from his four albums of original songs, Thompson is likely to present some classic country from his country covers CD Upfront and Down Low. “My voice sounds quite country,” he says, accepting the oddity of an Englishman sounding, on occasion, like a Nashvillian. “That’s just the way it is. It’s always in me. It’s all the same, anyway – country is English, Scottish and Irish folk music with banjos and fiddles.”
And… holiday songs? The 20th is the last day of autumn, the day before the Winter Solstice. “I’ll have to do a couple of Christmas songs,” he says, resigned. “It’s gotta be done.”
With the Thompson family album and another original CD slated for 2014, Teddy Thompson is looking at a busy year ahead. The December 20th Helsinki Hudson show will be his last gig of 2013, and no matter which version of Teddy you prefer, he will be in fine, celebratory form in Hudson.