Richard Thompson on performing his ‘Cabaret of Souls’ (featuring Harry Shearer as the ‘keeper of the underworld’)


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British guitarist, singer and songwriter Richard Thompson has a long history of examining the many facets of the human heart, mind and body in songs of keen intellect, scathing wit and often through a prism of deep skepticism about the nature of the human beast.

He delves deeper than ever into that territory with “Cabaret of Souls,” a grand-scale work that will have its West Coast premiere Friday as part of the UCLA Live! 2010-2011 season. Thompson will be joined at the performance by comedian-actor-musician Harry Shearer, Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen (who’s also Shearer’s wife), percussionist Debra Dobkin, bassist David Piltch and woodwind player Pete Zorn, most of whom also participated in the premiere performance last year as a commission for the International Society of Bassists’ convention in Pennsylvania as a showcase for bassist Danny Thompson [no relation]. They’ll also be aided by 12 string players from the Idyllwild Arts Academy in the San Bernardino Mountains.


Pop & Hiss sat down recently with Thompson, whose new album ‘Dream Attic’ has been generating largely glowing reviews, for a question-answer session exploring how a piece like ‘Cabaret of Souls’ comes to life, and how it has developed since the first performance last year.

P&H: How would you describe “Cabaret of Souls”?

Richard Thompson: I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is. Most accurately, it’s probably an oratorio -- a folk oratorio. There’s a huge demand for those these days. [He laughs.] It runs about 80 minutes right now. It’s not a song cycle; it’s a bit more. But it’s not quite an opera, it’s not a musical and it’s not a musical play. I’m glad to say it’s kind of its own form -- it’s not like other things. For most purposes, this is a whole new world here.

P&H: What’s the premise?

Thompson: Originally, it was about a talent contest in the underworld. It’s now less that; that’s a bit of cliché these days, I suppose. The premise now is the audience walks in and the audience is dead, but they haven’t realized yet that they’ve crossed over from life into death. They are in the underworld: [UCLA’s] Royce Hall is the reception area for the underworld. The keeper of the underworld likes to greet the new entrants with an evening of entertainment. He drags one or two people out of the dark and they join in. These human souls are still sort of dreaming about their former lives. This is what the songs are about: who they were, what their characters were, what their personalities were. Every song is a new character, and at the end of this process, after every song, the keeper of the underworld and his assistants are singing their own little song of sarcasm, parody, commentary. They basically hate everything.

P&H: It sounds like “American Idol.” Is Harry Shearer anything like Simon Cowell?

Thompson: Harry is the keeper of the underworld, [but] not the whole underworld. He’s not Hades, exactly. He looks after the boring part of the underworld. … In the traditional Greek underworld, there’s the Pit of Tartarus, which is like the fire: That’s the bad place. Then there’s the Fields of Elysium: That’s where the heroes end up. And then there’s the Fields of Asphodel, which is where this is set. It’s just kind of boring, it’s bland; people just fade away, they fade into nothing. ... It’s less judgmental. You’re not in hell and you’re not in heaven. You’re in this kind of nowhere. It’s bit like Christian purgatory, where you’re waiting for something to happen. You’re waiting to be sent somewhere else.

P&H: Is this what the International Society of Bassists had in mind when they asked you to write something?

Thompson: They’d been angling to get Danny Thompson [no relation] out there and they asked me to write something that would feature him. I think they had in mind something not exceeding four minutes. I thought: To do justice to Danny, who has played everything -- straight jazz, he’s played with Kate Bush, David Sylvian, Josh White … right across the board, not to mention his years with John Martyn -- to do justice to Danny, we have to have something a bit longer.

P&H: Was it your intent from the outset to write such an ambitious piece?

Thompson: As a songwriter, it’s safe for me to do things in song sections; then I won’t get too pretentious about the orchestral sweep of my work or anything. Then this narrative started to develop; the premise of this whole thing started to take over. It ended up I think where it would fulfill a feature for Danny, featuring the bass with a lot of bass solos, but it really became something else as well.

P&H: You’ve said you followed your muse in letting this piece develop. Is that the way you’ve always operated?

Thompson: I’ve always tried to do that. It seems the honest thing to do; it’s not always the commercial thing to do. There are various times when I’ve really tried to appease record companies. But I have found -- and it took me a long time to figure this out -- when I do that, I don’t succeed at being commercial, and I compromise what’s good about what I do. So I fall between two stalls, and the results are usually not very good.

P&H: After the first performance last year, you presented “Cabaret of Souls” again last summer as part of the Meltdown Festival in London, which you curated. Has it changed since the premiere?

Thompson: In its original form, it really fell between the two schools: It was part bass concerto and part oratorio. I really thought it was time to de-emphasize the bass somewhat. In its current incarnation, there’s still a lot of bass featured, but a bit less than at the original performance. A couple of bass solos have become guitar solos. I think it’s developed a bit theatrically as well. We have a back projection for it, which changes with every song, and we have some small theatrical tweaks, small elements of makeup and costuming -- as much as we can manage. It’s going to feel like a concert performance of a piece that wants to be more theatrical. … Probably if this thing goes onto another incarnation, it will be as a full theatrical piece.

P&H: “Cabaret of Souls” sounds like an example of a work of art with a will of its own.

Thompson: You wouldn’t say it was a piece that was planned. It’s more that I followed the muse wherever it was taking me. And this is where it ended up. And it’s still tugging me along the road -- not the other way around. It’s saying to me, ‘I need this, I need that,’ to go further.

-- Randy Lewis