The Whole Richard Thompson
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
In the northern summer of 1991 I happened to be in Vancouver, BC on a night the Richard Thompson Band was playing. But I suffered an attack of good manners, and went to dinner with my Canadian hosts, thinking I’d soon enough see the band at home in Australia.
Well, I’ve since seen more Richard Thompson shows than I can count — most memorably with bass legend, Danny Thompson — but never with an electric guitar in Thompson’s hands.
The economics of touring, he says, didn’t allow him to bring a band to my end of the world.
So here we are in 2015, a quarter of a century later, and this tour by the Richard Thompson Electric Trio finally gave me the chance to atone.
(Yes, we were all a lot younger and prettier in 1991 – you, me, Thompson – but Thomson, at least, is still at the top of his game. “Thanks for staying the course,” he told his mainly Baby-Boomer audience. “Thanks for not dying yet.”)
As much as I love the blues – and I really love blues – the intoxicating thing about Richard Thompson is that he comes from a different place. As producer Joe Boyd said (in his excellent memoir, White Bicycles), “He can imitate almost any style, and often does, but is instantly identifiable. In his playing you can hear the evocation of the Scottish piper’s drone and the melody of the chanter as well as echoes of Barney Kessell’s and James Burton’s guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano. But no blues clichés.”
“You have to have your own clichés,” Thompson told Radio National’s Michael Mackenzie, on the eve of his Melbourne show, “Maybe that just refers to the tone of your instrument or the pattern of notes that you play, or something,” he said, in typically modest understatement. This from the man whose sound is his signature and whose “pattern of notes” is a seemingly infinite vocabulary.
It’s on electric guitar, with a rhythm section providing the groove and the counterpoint, that Thompson gets the space to improvise, and where he shines brightest for me.
In the event, the concert at Angel Place was more than the Sydney debut of Thompson’s electric band. It was a showcase of everything that makes him one of the most revered figures in roots music – a musician’s musician, and a songwriter’s songwriter. Happily, Richard Thompson, solo and acoustic, was his own support.
From the opening bars of “I Misunderstood” (Rumour and Sigh, 1991), it was obvious Thompson was in good voice and good form. From where I sat, the sound of his instrument was brilliant, filling the hall with rich warm bass and clear, bell-like treble. I’ve never heard Thompson sound better.
From “I Misunderstood”, one of his best acoustic arrangements of a “band” song, it was into a fine new composition, “Josephine”, and the sing-along sea-shanty, “Johnny’s Far Away” (Sweet Warrior, 2007).
The brief set ended with an unforgettable trio of songs – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (Rumour and Sigh), “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, and “Beeswing” (Mirror Blue, 1994). It was a perfect quarter hour – Thompson’s two most requested acoustic ballads, sandwiching Sandy Denny’s best song, one recorded with Fairport Convention during Thompson’s tenure.
I know I wasn’t the only one in the room who thought they’d had their money’s worth by intermission.
It was until the fourth song that I really connected with the second half of the program, with “For Shame of Doing Wrong” (Pour Down Like Silver, 1975), a classic from the Richard and Linda era. By then, either a slight boominess in the mix had been remedied, or my ears had adjusted.
Next, I got exactly what I came for. “Can’t Win” (Amnesia, 1988) ended with an epic solo of rare imagination and fire. Like the very best jazz players, Richard Thompson plays with prodigious technique; cerebral, without sacrificing anything by way of passion. Head and heart. For me, it was the peak moment of the night.
I’m not sure the second half of the show was as well paced as it might have been, but there was something for everyone, and considerably more light and shade than I expected.
Thomson switched back to acoustic guitar for a few songs, including a new song about Amsterdam and “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven” (Daring Adventures, 1986). The cocktail jazz of “Al Bowlly” gave bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome their brief moment in the spotlight, Jerome impressing with a subtle solo – played with his hands. Surprisingly, only “Sally B” made the set list from the excellent Electric , recorded by this trio in 2013.
There was no “Shoot Out The Lights”, but there were two truly great songs from that Richard and Linda album – “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed” and “Wall of Death”.
The first encore took us into rock’n’roll territory, with “Tear Stained Letter” (Hand of Kindness, 1983).
The tempo was dialed back for the second encore, beginning with “Dry My Tears and Move On” (Mock Tudor, 1999), continuing straight into the title track of I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) – another classic from the Richard and Linda era.
The evening ended on a high note, with the rollicking “Daddy Rolling Stone”, an Otis Blackwell song, once a staple of The Who’s live shows.
It took a long time for Australians to see the whole Richard Thompson. It was worth the wait, and worth all of the three standing ovations.
Photo © Four Minutes to Midnight
Pictures by Maria Boyadgis / Amnplify