Richard Thompson, Back to Back
Richard Thompson is touring America now. On stage with him: an acoustic guitar; a glass of water; a container of baby powder; a stool on which he does not sit while he performs. If you value a legend who can make a single guitar sound like a symphony, a singer of remarkable power and style, and a songwriter for the ages, then beg, borrow, or steal a ride to the nearest venue where he is.
In back-to-back shows on two nights in Newark, New Jersey and Hudson, New York, in very different venues, Thompson gave us classics and brand-new songs – including, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, one composed on the spot. To say his following is devoted is inadequate – the respect and affection he inspires are immense. And these days, among the Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda fans of long standing, there are increasing numbers of intense young guitar players and twentysomethings who first caught him on the AmericanaramA tour in 2013, and were amazed.
The New York city crowd who’d crossed the river to Newark were lucky to hear Thompson in a hall with superb acoustics, perfect for his rich, resounding sound. His ripping starter, from his Electric album of 2013, was “Stony Ground,” described when it appeared as “a stomping but violent tale of elderly sexual obsession” by The Guardian. Several times during the set, Thompson cheerfully announced he’d be serving up more such songs. “Sex may be involved,” he warned, introducing “Johnny’s Far Away”; and as he led into “Read About Love,” Thompson bemoaned the whole idea of sex for a lad growing up in England in the 1950s: “another song about sex, a tragic one.”
For someone who specializes in vicious, stinging lyrics and what he grinningly refers to in concert as “those depressing ballads,” Thompson is immensely genial and charismatic in his between-numbers conversation. In Newark, someone kept shouting out a song he hadn’t written. “Really? This?” Thompson said. Then he began on the spot a song with the bizarre request as his title – riffing lines, strumming along, showing you how easy it is to find a rhyme and rhythm if you’re a genius songwriter – before he put paid to the whole thing with a pure Bing-Crosby bass-baritone ba-ba-ba-ba-boooooom that brought down the house.
At neither concert had the name and release date of Thompson’s new album Still (Fantasy/Proper, June 2015), produced by Jeff Tweedy, yet been announced. However, he surprised us with unreleased songs. Both nights, after a blazing “Valerie” had his audiences standing and cheering, Thompson quietly slid into the beautiful, sad “Josephine”: “Josephine dresses her wound / One scent of blood and he might disappear….” The track that appeared online via Soundcloud this week, “Beatnik Walking,” lets you stroll through Amsterdam with RT and see what he sees, note what he notes.
Thompson’s engineering of his set lists is of a part with the sung phrasing that sets him apart from almost every singer on this planet. Opera singers know phrasing. Frank Sinatra knew it, and Bob Dylan knows it. Thompson is syllable-perfect, sound-perfect, when it comes to the delivery of a phrase. If you’ve even listened to him sing a single song, you know that. His set lists are structured similarly. The hollowly reverb pounding of “Stony Ground” gives way to the ebb and flow of “The Ghost of You Walks.” “Do you know what a ceilidh band is? NO? Oh. Well, it’s spelled c e f h b c i….” Thompson jokes, then sears you with the adulterous sex and battered roses of “Johnny’s Far Away.” “1974 was a tough time for folk rockers,” he says, mock-philosophically. “The competition….T-Rex, you know.” And then Thompson launched into “I Want to See the Bright Lights.”
In Newark, Thompson took a particular relish in his new song “Fergus Laing.” “It’s a song about property development,” he explained, and is inspired by an American. “I hold you responsible,” Thompson told us. The American in question has been buying up land in Scotland, and instituting golf clubs and resorts. “I’d love to write a song about him, but he’d have me kneecapped. Or killed.” In Hudson, Thompson elaborated further: “In England he’s what we call a bit of a wanker. I was staying in a hotel in Chicago. I woke up, and saw his name in letters 200 feet high on the building next door. I nearly had a seizure.” Here’s just one couplet of the lyric. You’ll get it. “Fergus Laing he builds and builds but his are small erections / Fergus Laing has a fine head of hair when the wind’s in the right direction.” You needn’t really be told, in the last line, that “Fergus Laing” is fired, but the audience was laughing too hard by then to mind.
The concert at Hudson’s Club Helsinki was in a far smaller venue, with a much more passionate and intimate crowd. Thompson responded accordingly, a master of his audiences by now. After “Persuasion,” a woman called out, “It’s so beautiful, every time.” Thompson jumped in mock alarm. “Security?” he hazarded. When he began his intro to “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” as a tribute to Sandy Denny, a man in the audience stood up with a beautifully hand-lettered sign reading “Meet On the Ledge.” He didn’t yell out the request. Thompson sang that instead, after some deciding about the key. “What key shall I do it in?” he asked. “I didn’t sing on the record in those days. But I do get privileges. And royalties….I’ll go for F. It’s a happy key. All those Mozart horn concertos, they’re in D.” During his encore, Thompson quoted George Raft in Some Like it Hot, teased us with various possibilities, and then closed with a beautiful “A Heart Needs a Home.”
In Hudson, I was standing by what turned out to be the green room entrance – there is no backstage at Helsinki Hudson, just a wall. Thompson swept past me six times, on his way to and from the stage for the show and two encores. Every time, he was smiling. As he left for the last time, I gave him a curtsey. Richard John Thompson, OBE, squinted at me, wrinkled his nose, and shook his head no. But he was smiling.
Still is available at the end of June on cd, in an extra-tracks cd, and on vinyl. Preorder via Richard Thompson