HIS tunes are famously dark. But anyone who’s paid attention to Richard Thompson’s between-song banter, or seen his semi-comic 1000 Years of Popular Music, know how funny the guy can be. (He was beaten only by Hendrix for The Misread City’s poll of favorite guitarist.)
So we wasted no time checking out his Cabaret of Souls, a theatrical staging of the Underworld that is sort of an oratorio, sort of a rock concert with strings, sort of a medieval torture, and sort of like a talent show in hell. And while it’s not quite perfect, it’s also far better than I’ll be able to make it sound, and either the weirdest great show I’ve seen recently or the greatest weird one.
I’m not going to try to describe the plot of this strange hybrid of a beast except in barest terms. The audience is swept into the narrative even before they enter the hall — at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica (snazzy arts center, by the way), the parking attendants and ushers wore devil horns. The band — a chamber orchestra, basically — limps out like a gang of zombies. A costumed Harry Shearer serves a narrator.
From there, we get a series of songs, some sung by Richard, some by Welsh folkie Judith Owen, some by others, in a variety of styles. Some characters represent variations on the Seven Deadly Sins — gluttony, pride, and so on. Among the best of these was a gangster’s moll whose song, “My Dave,” was both tuneful and filled with the kind of self-deception Richard’s songs are known for. Is there a songwriter better at capturing the lies we tell ourselves? Cabaret of Souls took advantage of his knack for creating widely disparate characters.
The music was in a huge range of styles, and I’m glad to report that in almost all the songs, it was still possible to hear the wonderful chiming fills he got from his acoustic guitar. (Still baffled how he gets that tone — I’ve even played the Lowden guitar designed for him and cannot get close.) Also at this staging was double-bassist Danny Thompson, a Brit-folk hero since his days with Pentangle and a fruitful, longtime Richard collaborator of no relation.
Some concerns: There’s an archness and mean-spiritedness to some of the characters that was jarring at the very least. (A few moments recalled the moralism of, say, Roald Dahl.) This was a quasi-medieval setting, and Richard’s work is all drawn from the grim and unforgiving world of British and Celtic folk music, so perhaps it was in tone with the show’s origins. It was still a bit jarring.
And the piece gets going quite nicely about 10 minutes or so in, but seems a little confused at first as we get various introductions to where we are, what’s going on, etc. The piece has, I’m told by friends who saw the Royce Hall performance, been improved and made more theatrical since then. It could still use a bit of refining, I think.
But Cabaret of Souls was also funny, musically adventurous and at times, perhaps in spite of itself, genuinely moving. Richard Thompson continues to confound us.