Linda Thompson – Bottom Line (New York City, NY)
It was just over twenty years ago that she’d appeared on this fabled stage, in one of those last, tumultuous appearances of the Richard and Linda Thompson act. There was angry banter. And when, predictably, someone in the crowd called for Richard’s Fairport Convention anthem “Meet On The Ledge”, she’d snapped back, “That’s easy for you to want; all I got was ‘Meat in the Fridge’.”
She has always been at least as acid-tongued, in a perfectly British way, and as prone toward the dark side of life, as Richard, the long-gone “dear old man” she suggests we say farewell to — as a subject matter with her, anyway — in one of her strong, bittersweet, pointed new numbers.
A mixture of passionately loyal old New York fans and the many who’ve never had a chance to see her packed the place for two shows this night — all very aware that it had been seventeen years since Linda Thompson bolted from performing altogether, struck by a psychological and physical inability to sing. It had come just as her first solo album was grabbing attention, and, via the cover of its song “Telling Me Lies” on the Parton/Harris/Ronstadt Trio album a couple years later, rewards.
“I wrote this, and thanks to Emmylou, Dolly, and Linda, I made a shitload of money!” she announced to the crowd before reviving that one, late in the show.
Her combination of edginess, wit and self-definition, plus an underlying toughness that lets her stare into a void and tell us about it, in tune, has made Thompson a key role model across indie-rock and folk-rock in the years since she went away. Parts of alternative country would sound very different if she’d never been there. If her airier and more mystic old friend Sandy Denny is often cited as a central figure, it’s Linda’s stance and sound that’s been actually more influential in these parts, among singers from Cheri Knight to Susan Cowsill to Caitlin Cary.
This memorable show demonstrated anew the other reason why that is: Thompson remains one masterful, moving singer.
Delivering son Teddy’s song “All I See”, she took off from its opening line “I miss you tonight,” building to almost painful drama, getting there via a chilling, even scary restraint that implies much and delivers plenty — utterly free of today’s diva-matic, “one feel fits all” cliches. She’d fall off notes at line’s end, pushing it up, or down — always spot on for the intention of the moment.
The remarkable emotional accuracy is carried by a voice that, if a generation older now, proved to be not very much changed at all. It seemed almost as if the hiatus has allowed Thompson to avoid some of the wear and tear that would inevitably have been there if she had been singing like this 200 nights a year.
She held the audience rapt, and silent, through the details of her story ballad “No Telling (What A Love Song Will Do)”. For the more British folk-tinged ballad “Banks Of The Clyde”, her singing, slashing across the room, went soft or forcefully full on a dime; the details of this sad tale (“the short story of my life”) were doled out as if just recalled on the spot.
Like most great singers, there’s something of the great actor in her. There was rich drama in “Nine Stone Rig”, which Thompson described as “My kind of folk music — with intrigue, incest, and murder.”
She also found time, in this extended set, for a tribute to her late friend and her agent husband’s client, the actor Richard Harris, offering the far-from-sentimental, Harris-appropriate “sound and fury, signifying nothing” speech from Macbeth.
Musically, she was very ably backed both by son Teddy Thompson, the opening act and instigator of her return (and who seems to marry, lucky boy, his dad’s instrumental skills and his mom’s natural vocal strengths); and daughter Kamila, who showed potential and traction of her own on one vocal solo. (Linda noted of the two of them: “36 hours of painful labor — and completely worth it.”) The tight family harmonies were a real plus for the full range of Thompson’s music.
That range included, yes, a handful of returns to Richard Thompson-penned Linda vocal classics, from “Dimming Of The Day” to a forceful, urgent new take on “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”.
Singers like this don’t come along every day. We can hope that shows like this will be coming along more frequently now than once every 20 years.