"We're in our fifth year now with the camp," proudly proclaims British guitar hero Richard Thompson about Frets and Refrains, his acoustic guitar and songwriting camp held from July 6 through the 10th at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian. "It's a really great location, and we have great teachers, great students. Its absolutely idyllic and we just love to do it."
The four-day retreat is part of the Music Masters Camps series held every summer at the popular Catskills resort, whose current summer schedule also features workshops with King Crimson, Steve Earle and hard-rock power trio The Winery Dogs. For Thompson, the program running up at Full Moon serves as a wonderful remedy for a state where music education has taken a back seat to standardized testing in the public school system.
"When politicians interfere with education, things go wrong drastically," laughs Thompson. "And that's what seems to be happening in the States. Administrators cut music and they cut arts because they think its peripheral to education. But its been proven over and over again that kids who do well in music also do well in mathematics and other subjects. Its very good for the structure of the brain. Performing music in a band or an orchestra is good for self-esteem. Education should be a whole package, not just concentrating on the three Rs."
What makes this season of Frets and Refrains even sweeter, however, is that it directly follows the release of Thompson's latest LP, Still, which was produced by Jeff Tweedy at Wilco's recording loft in Chicago. His 16th solo album, it is yet another great classic in a near half-century full of them, both as a solo act and a member of the massively influential English folk outfit Fairport Convention. For Thompson, who has largely helmed his own material but worked with some of the finest studio men in the business—including Joe Boyd, Mitchell Froom, Tom Rothrock, and Buddy Miller—through the years, letting an outside influence control the boards is an optimal way to keep a catalog as voluminous as his fresh.
"When you've made as many records as I have, it's good to bring in different people sometimes," he explains, "just to break the routine if you have a certain way of doing things and fall into the same patterns. It's good to have someone like Jeff come in and approach you with other ideas and bring a different feel to a record."
As he's done each year, Thompson will bring the camp days to a close with a concert at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on the last day of camp. But where he will be supporting Still with his electric trio at festivals and concert halls across North America through August, here the guitarist will be performing "solo and acoustic." It's a format by which many of his most loyal fans prefer to see him, because of the way it places an emphasis squarely on the raw talent of Thompson's distinct voice and out-of-this-world guitar playing.
"Acoustically, you can hear lyrics better, so if you're telling a story you can bring the audience into it more," Thompson explains. "And for someone like myself or, say, Bruce Springsteen, it reveals a whole different side. I love the fact that I could do both [acoustic and electric] and have that contrast. It keeps it interesting for me, and hopefully for the fans as well, to be able to turn up in two different guises."
Richard Thompson plays a solo acoustic show at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on July 10. Tickets: $35-$99. Bearsvilletheater.com