Armed with a lone guitar and a couple of effect pedals, Richard Thompson dazzled the audience at the intimate Swyer Theatre at The Egg with a nearly two-hour concert showcasing songs that spanned his forty-plus-year career. Emotional turmoil, blood, guts and romantic failure are themes that recur in many of Thompson’s songs, and these were evident from the evening’s first song, “She Twists The Knife Again.” Thompson’s vocal and instrumental fury captured the frustration of a man who can’t please his partner and suffers the emotional consequences.
In spite of the darkness in many of his songs, Thompson’s lyrics draw us into the psyche of his characters and the timelessness of his lyrics. There’s the peace volunteer who kills a man in a street fight, and after prison lives with the shame and the loss of the woman whose face “won’t go away” in “A Love You Can’t Survive.” And his song “Pharaoh,” ostensibly about another time, could be sung by the Occupy Wall Street protesters. His introduction: “This is my song about financial paranoia. Join me. Wallow in it for a while.”
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Richard’s rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Hamlet” – complete with jive lyrics and swing guitar – summarized the bard’s play in four verses and left the audience roaring with laughter as did his song about the cheating spouses in “Johnny’s Far Away”: a traveling musician and the wife he left behind, each giving in to temptation and desire only to resume their “missionary” relationship upon the husband’s return.
And then there is the guitar playing. There were multiple occasions when you had to wonder if your eyes were deceiving you, because one person could not possibly be creating the music you were hearing. This was evident in his best known song “Vincent Black Lightning,” which opens with a bass run layered on top of the melody played very fast and cleanly by his bottom three fingers. And it all only gets faster and more complicated as the song progresses.
And it is not simply the guitar hero licks that were pulled out for “Crawl Back” or the end of “Valerie” that leave you shaking your head in wonder; there is also the more understated playing that completes the landscape on songs like “Dimming of the Day” and “Sunset Song.” Thompson’s guitar playing is almost always in service of the song and rarely does he show off simply to get a rise from the audience.
The evening also had some surprises. Two new songs were unveiled: “Good Things Happen to Bad People” and “Northern Wind.” Both songs fall into the classic Thompson worldview. In addition to the new songs, Thompson addressed the audience and told them that he had a number of album titles in a hat and would draw one out and play three songs from it. Of course, the audience suggested that he pull out about a dozen different albums. He drew “The Old Kit Bag” out of the beret and played “A Love You Can’t Survive,” “One Door Opens” and “Gethsemane.” The latter was one of the highlights of the evening.
While it no longer qualifies as a surprise, Thompson’s introduction and performance of Sandy Denny’s classic “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was obviously as heartfelt as any song that he performed and certainly qualified as a highlight. And among the many truly great songs that Thompson has written, one of them, arguably, seems to resonate with audiences more than the others: “Beeswing,” a song about a man looking back on his failure keep the love of his life, ended the evening with the last of several standing ovations.
As a singer, writer and guitarist Thompson has few, if any, peers. I have only one question: What is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame waiting for?
Review by Richard Brody
RICHARD THOMPSON SET LIST
She Twists the Knife Again
Walking on A Wire
Good Things Happen to Bad People (new/unrecorded)
A Love You Can’t Survive
One Door Opens
Johnny’s Far Away
Who Knows Where The Time Goes
Northern Wind (new/unrecorded)
Keep Your Distance
Dimming of the Day
Heart Needs A Home
Feel So Good