Richard and the Thompsons in Woodstock at Levon Helm’s
Richard Thompson has recently graced the Hudson Valley with his summer songwriting and acoustic guitar camp, Frets and Refrains. Now in its fifth wildly successful year, Frets and Refrains welcomed to the ranks of instructors this time around a man who is, like Thompson himself, a guitarist extraordinaire, Martin Carthy. Sloan Wainwright and Happy Traum were among the returning instructors, and it’s something of a family affair, with Thompson’s son Teddy and grandson Zak Hobbs teaching there too. At the close of camp, Thompson gathered up family, and friends, and headed to Levon Helm’s living room — a.k.a. “The Barn” — for a wonderful Saturday night.
Most of the show, indeed the entire first hour and more, was Thompson, solo and acoustic. He was palpably happy to be at The Barn, and reminisced in a perhaps inadvertent (but I don’t think so) rhyme about the time he got to perform with Helm. “That big bass drum….right up my bum.” He laughed and rolled his eyes. “What a tailwind.” Helm’s almighty playing on “The Weight” during an all-star Elvis Costello Spectacle in 2009, indeed right behind RT, is something never to be again.
Every time I hear Thompson play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” I think it’s the best time. At Levon’s, that might truly have been the case. During the first two songs, Thompson looked up at the soundboard — in the rafters in front of him — and gestured a couple of times. Suddenly, something perfect happened, and stayed that way. “Valerie” shook and rolled, every note specific and clear despite the song’s speed. On “Vincent Black Lightning,” Thompson did something percussive I’d never heard him do before on the song, giving it an eerie, motor-driven quality that no one who heard it that night will ever forget.
Thompson welcomed his old friend, Helm’s dear friend, and Woodstock’s leading musical citizen Happy Traum to the tiny stage for a joyful “Careless Love.” It’s a song Traum has performed countless times, and to hear him do it with Thompson was an obvious delight for him. Teddy joined his father on several songs, from old ballads to Thompson’s own “Persuasion.” Teddy’s singing voice has become in the past few years almost too lovely to listen to — reminiscent, somehow, of his mother Linda’s, so full of richness and grace. Jack Thompson, son of Richard and Nancy Covey — who was there enjoying every moment — added some sensitive bass to the family mix.
Zak Hobbs, Richard and Linda’s grandson, was a beautiful-faced, long-haired mandolin player of eighteen or nineteen the first time I heard him on a stage. At Levon’s, his fine guitar playing made his grandfather smile again and again — and Hobbs has just released his first record, the EP “Against the Grain.” Pick one up; he’s damn good.
Perhaps the largest crowd-pleaser of the night was Thompson’s extended version of “Fergus Lang,” also spelled “Fergus Laing” in some places. Back in April 2015, I wrote about Thompson’s spectacular tour of America for ND. One of the standout new songs was a critical ballad about an unnamed property developer whose name, plastered on the side of a building outside Thompson’s hotel window, appalled him into writing the song. “I can’t use his name. He’ll have me killed,” Thompson joked, darting his eyes from side to side of the room in mock wariness, and then he unleashed a new verse about the property developer heading into the sea of politics, because it’s easy….and (yes, you’ve guessed it) cheesy. May there only be one or two more verses, conclusive and putting paid to the concept of “you’re fired,” to come. Woodstock nodded, laughed — but with a little fright, too — and applauded mightily.
Here: take fifteen minutes out of your day with RT. You’ll be glad you did.
Story photographs via zak.hobbs on Instagram