A Tale of Two Siblings: Teddy Thompson + Kami Thompson, Sheffield Cathedral 10/06/11
Sometimes the best gigs are a little out of the ordinary, one way or another. It’s certainly not often you find major-label acts with Radio 2 A-list singles under their belt inside the relatively modest walls of Sheffield Cathedral. Unfortunately, rather than seeming like a remarkable piece of good fortune, this felt more like an admistrative blunder. Can it be true? I found myself wondering, checking Teddy Thompson‘s official website, double-checking the ticketing page. This was a one-off solo gig for Teddy, having toured new album Bella with his band earlier this year, and I can’t quite work out how it came to be, or indeed why it wasn’t better publicised; the audience can’t have numbered more than 300, and with tickets at £10 something wasn’t adding up.
Support came from Teddy’s younger sister Kami, mostly seen thus far featuring in the many Thompson-Wainwright-McGarrigle extended-family gigs that seem to happen every once in a while (For anyone not versed in the lore of English folk-rock, Teddy and Kami are the offspring of legendary couple Richard and Linda Thompson, who made six albums between 1974 and 1982. Richard is a good friend of (and collaborator with) Loudon Wainwright III, who married Kate McGarrigle, mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Keeping up? Good.). Those of us who keep an eye on the every move of Rufus, Martha and Teddy (writing songs about one another, singing backing vocals on each others’ albums, swapping producers…) have been wondering for some time if Kami was destined to join their little cabal. This tale of two siblings holds plenty of parallels between the pair, but at the end of the night (nay, at the end of the first song of Teddy’s set) it was clear why one of them gets top billing.
Kami bears an almost startling resemblance to her mother Linda; in the half-light of the north transept as she waited for the nod to walk onstage, it was like a time capsule to the mid-1970s. It is inevitable that we make these comparisons both visual and musical, and in their defence it’s not something the Thompson siblings have shied away from, content for the most part to let others do the talking and get on making music. It’s a shame, then, that last night Kami came across flustered, nervy and unsettled. She announced as she came onstage “I’m Kami and I just got here.” She probably met the same M1 traffic I did on my way there, but it seemed to set her off on the wrong foot; she mumbled, spoke too fast; for the first few minutes I could scarcely make out a word she said between songs. That the songs themselves are, even by the standards of someone versed in the English folk tradition, dour to the point of being depressing made for a peculiar half hour. On the one hand, when you could work out what was being said, her between-song banter was charming in its self-deprecating wit. She would then wheel out another song of bitterness, envy or lost love without any of that wit or resignation, just unremitting sadness stretched over minimalist minor chords. Her writing has its moments, but I can’t forgive a chorus comprising entirely the words “Screw-ew-ew-ew you guys” repeated four times. I wanted to like Kami; by the end of her 40-minute set I was clutching at straws trying to find reasons to do so.
She could do worse than take lessons from her brother in both stagecraft and songwriting. If Teddy shares the family tendency for extremely dry humour, he tempers it with a cool confidence in front of the audience and a willingness to laugh at himself. His writing, meanwhile, takes in a lot of the themes of lost love, unrequited desire and his apparent tragic flaw of always wanting things he cannot have, he does so with some of that humour and self-deprecation woven in.
They share an ability to get out of tight spots with a casual quip, a talent that leant itself to the intimate, casual atmosphere of the gig. No fanfares, no band, no entourage; just a small stage, a microphone and an attentive crowd. Remarkably, both forgot a lyric in their respective second songs.
“Shit,” said Kami having lost the lyric. “Told you it was an old one. Now I’ve said shit in a church!”
“Said it twice now,” replied a helpful heckler. She waited a beat.
“Shit,” she said, eyes aloft.
I smiled; this was a rare moment of warmth and relaxed banter. She’d made a big deal of her “Catholic guilt” about drinking in church, something Teddy did too, actually pausing to ironically cross himself as he walked onstage (I could have done without this, and indeed all the fuss they both made about it being a church).
Teddy, however, shares qualities with his father too, and anyone familiar with Richard’s career will understand that these are likely to stand one in good stead. Whilst Teddy is unlikely to trouble the top twenty of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists like his father before him, he is a highly competent and very pleasing player. His left hand vibrato owes a lot to his dad, as does his ability to render a complex arrangement using just one guitar in such a way that your mind fills in the gaps from memory. Horn section? Who needs it! His control of dynamics is superb too, on guitar and vocals. Most of all, he plays like a man who knows what he can do, does it well and doesn’t try to live beyond his means technique-wise; he decorates strummed chords with flatpicked riffs to create a pleasing, effective accompaniment, always in service of the song.
If is guitar playing is merely competent, his vocals are stellar. In such an intimate setting and with no band to fall back on, this was a tightrope walk that Teddy seemed to take on more like a cakewalk, revelling in the acoustic of the cathedral, throwing notes out into the space. I’m not the first to suggest this, but there were times when the smooth clarity of his tenor had more than a hint of Roy Orbison about it. He sang his second encore, Home, stepping aside from the microphone “just to see what it sound[ed] like”.
He selected a good set, too, remarking at one point that he used to fret about not having enough songs; five albums in, he now has too many. A healthy selection from Bella, sure, but several from A Piece of What You Need (including a sultry “Can’t Sing Straight” and “In My Arms”) and a welcome sprinkling of gems from his second album Separate Ways including the sequential combo of “I Should Get Up”, “Everybody Move It” and “I Wish It Was Over”. Follow all that with a frankly astonishing cover of Super Trouper by ABBA that managed to be audacious, ridiculous and heartfelt without ever taking it too seriously and you had a remarkable set.
Bella was announced to much fanfare and radio play, but didn’t chart as well as his last album A Piece of What You Need. A part of me (a cruel part, perhaps!) is quietly pleased about this; if the record companies fail in their best efforts to turn Teddy into a pop sensation he might just end up on a slow-burn career path that means we will get to see gigs like this more often. If you ever get the chance, go and see Teddy Thompson play solo, preferably in as intimate a setting and with as respectful an audience as possible; if you get a show anything like the one I saw on Friday night it’ll be one of the best vocal performances you’ve seen in some time.
Teddy Thompson’s latest album Bella is out now.
Kami Thompson’s Bad Marriage EP is out now, her debut album will be released in October.