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November 30, 2006

Heading: Heartbreaker, the Hum by Bob Doran, illustration of Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson has long received accolades for his guitar wizardry, most recently in the British music magazine Mojo, where Thompson's 1972 album, Henry the Human Fly, was chosen as one of the 100 great guitar albums of all time (a lofty list, to be sure).There is no question about his gifted guitar playing. But it is his songwriting that has dazzled both fans and critics. From his early days as a founding member of Fairport Convention (the band that arguably carved the way of the British Folk Rock movement in the late '60s/early '70s, a huge influence on today's "freak folk" artists such as Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Six Organs of Admittance and Joanna Newsome, among others), to his duo recordings with his then-wife Linda Thompson, and on through his solo work, Thompson has created a body of work that evokes deep sadness, dark, rain-soaked loss and tragic tales (think Dylan Thomas). And he executes this with charm, wit, humor and trusting articulation.

"Do I think of myself as a folk musician?" Thompson said in an interview earlier this year with UK newspaper The Guardian. "Not really. Do I think of myself as a pop musician? A rock musician? Not really. I don't know, really. I'm a singer-songwriter with some roots."

Following a terrible tragedy (the car crash death of drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson's then-girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn), Fairport Convention released Liege & Leaf in 1969. Thompson's stunning maturity and worldliness exemplified was astounding, especially if you consider that he hadn't yet reached his 21st birthday. That was only the beginning. His milestone recordings with his ex-wife Linda Thompson resulted in Shoot Out the Lights, in 1982 -- a devastating record of heartbreaking work. At the time, Richard and Linda Thompson were filing for a divorce. "Walking on A Wire" and "Don't Renege Our Love" are succinct and beautiful songs about the end and/or failure of a relationship. In 1991, his deceptive song "Misunderstood," from Rumor and Sigh, blended a head-bopping pop melody, while lyrically speaking from the viewpoint of a confused lover (on the way out), sung in his odd Gaelic brogue -- actually half Irish and half Scottish. "The worst thing is to be half-Irish and half-Scottish. Half of you's dying for a drink and the other half is too mean to pay for it," Thompson once commented.

In short, Richard Thompson is a musical legend, an important singer/songwriter who evades comfortable categorizations, a gifted musician/vocalist and a charismatic storyteller. His current tour follows on the heals of the UK release of a 5-CD collection of his work so far: RT -- The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, his recent contribution to Hal Wilner's musical project, Rogue's Gallery, a collection of sea shanty songs, as well as his recent 2005 studio release, Front Parlour Ballads, his first solo acoustic record in over 20 years. It is evident that he hasn't rested on his laurels. He has graced Humboldt County with brilliant shows several times in the recent past. It is unlikely that his performance, on Friday evening, Dec. 1, at HSU's J. Van Duzer Theatre, will disappoint. But he might break your heart.

Also on Friday evening there are two additional shows. Two Ton Boa, out with a new Kill Rock Stars release, Parasticide, will be playing at the Alibi with guest Universalia Jane, a talented and dynamic singer/songwriter (and recent Humboldt resident) whose music evokes Diamanda Galas, Nina Hagen and Burt Bacharach. Up the road, the Slim Pickens Band, featuring Jack Landry, Annie Ford and Slim Nelson (bassist from the Kitchen Syncopators) will be cooking it up at Muddy's Hot Cup. It should be noted that Nelson plays a bass made out of old auto gas tanks and pipes. Who says that bluegrass and folk don't have metal?

Also at Muddy's Hot Cup, on Saturday, Dec. 2, it's Blue Lake in the house. The barnstorming (literally) rockers, the Rubberneckers, will be playing an all ages show with fellow Blue Lake band Ukesperience and the SF group Arcadio.

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Celebrating their 20th year, the HSU Calypso Band will be presenting a holiday concert at the HSU's J. Van Duzer Theatre on Saturday evening. Classic, samba and West African pieces will be featured.

Maybe out-and-out rock and roll or an ensemble of steel drums isn't your cup of tea. Perhaps a "sacred evening" with Jah Levi and friends? Its sponsor, Open Presence, promises this will be the case, hosting Levi (and friends) at the Green Life Evolution Center in downtown Blue Lake.

The Humboldt Folklife Society will be presenting The Bills, formerly the Bill Hilly Band, an old-time (with Eastern European folk leanings) acoustic Vancouver Island quintet, at the Jambalaya on Tuesday, Dec. 5. The Bills recently won the 2006 Western Canadian Music Award for Entertainer(s) of the Year. Also, uptown at Muddy's Hot Cup, check out the weekly jazz jam session ("The Session"), with hosts Shao Way Wu (on bass) and Susie Laraine (on saxophones), two of Humboldt's growing pool of gifted musicians.

There's been an impressive string of shows lately at Synapsis, 47A West 3rd St., Eureka. In early November, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham), delivered a spirited, spontaneous two-hour set with his touring band, including Fawn Fables' Dawn McCarthy. McCarthy also gave a powerful opening solo set. This was one of the strongest and memorable shows I've seen this year (definitely a more powerful performance than the arrogant and indulgent Lou Reed show later the same week at the Van Duzer). Also in the same month, Synapsis hosted an intense performance by guitarists Jack Rose and Peter Walker, and a fun romp with The Slits, one of the UK's punk pioneers.

Trapeze artist Leslie Castellano, Synapsis' director, featured in this paper's "Art Beat" in September, has coordinated these shows with grace, tact and taste, providing a comfortable environment and aesthetic in its loft/gallery space home, also the residence of Rumplepeg, an artist collaborative of dancers, performance artists and visual artists. Castellano is also its director.

Synapsis also hosts a monthly themed "Cabaret," timed in association with Eureka's Arts Alive! This Saturday, Dec. 2, the theme is "Circus," offering an advance taste of Tsirkus Picaresque, a production by Rumplepeg and friends including a midway, trapeze and other circus acts. The next night, Sunday, Dec. 3, is preview time for the "tsirkus," which they explain is picaresque, as in "dealing with sharp-witted vagabonds and their roguish adventures." Tsirkus Picaresque continues its run the following two weekends including a Sunday matinee Dec. 10, and late shows on Saturday nights with "adult-oriented burlesque."

It should be noted that Synapsis has been the latest consistent Eureka venue for local bands, including The Monster Women, Starving Weirdos and The Ravens, to name a few. And, Synapsis was the performance space for the smashing theatrical run of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, featuring members of The Ravens, Eureka Garbage Co. and Lowlights.

On Wednesday, Dec. 6, Synapsis presents an all-ages show featuring Dead Meadow, with Eureka support from The Signals and Eureka Garbage Co. Dead Meadow, a Washington D.C. power quartet (originally a "power trio"), has released its last two recordings on Matador Records, most recently Feathers in 2005. The electricity bill will be high for this gig; there should be loads of effect pedals and feedback. In a good way.

Vanessa Pike-Vrtiak and Therese Keslin-FitzMaurice have collaborated on a 20-minute two-person spoken word piece, workshopping it at Synapsis last June. This has developed into a larger work, including contemporary dance and original music performed by Bump Foundation's Tommy FitzMaurice and Timothy Lane. The work, Excavating the History of Love, makes its debut on Thursday, Nov. 30, at HSU's Fulkerson Hall, with a second performance on Friday, Dec., 1, at Arcata's Dance Center. Pike-Vrtiak was a participant in last year's National Youth Poetry Slam in NYC.

In addition to being a bon vivant and man-about-town, guest Hummer Mark Shikuma is a published poet, a part-time HSU instructor and a clerk at Eureka Books.

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