Review by Richard Brody
Leaving his day job for the week – he is the head guitar instructor at the Frets & Refrains Music Camp at the nearby Full Moon Resort – Richard Thompson, along with his other music counselors, put on a nearly three-hour show at the sold-out Bearsville Theater in Woodstock. It captured the full breadth of his 45-year career. I have had the good fortune of seeing him many times over the last 30 years, and he has set the bar for his performances at an incredibly high level. Thompson has achieved legendary status among his fans and other musicians for his prowess on the guitar, but it was his songwriting that was center stage for this evening of acoustic music.
He is well known for his dark songs that detail romantic trials and tribulations when love goes wrong. Lines such as “Where’s the justice and where’s the sense when all the pain is on my side of the fence” from “Walking on a Wire,” (heard early in his set) reflect a relationship reality that most of us have experienced. But his songs about romance are not all grim. Thompson’s dry, acidic wit in both the introduction to and the lyrics of “Johnny’s Far Away,” a song about marital boredom, the missionary position and the opportunistic infidelity by both husband and wife, left the audience howling with laughter.
And, yes, he played some guitar. “Crawl Back (Under My Stone),” a caustic love song, got a fiery guitar bridge and a right hand that was a blur during the crescendo ending. His best known song – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” about motorcycles, black leather and red hair – showed off his hybrid style of playing bass and rhythm with his pick while his bottom three fingers create melody lines that run with and counter to what he is picking. With eyes closed, you would swear that there were at least two if not three guitars being played, and the loud standing ovation testified to that.
Thompson didn’t forget his days with Fairport Convention, and he honored his late band mate Sandy Denny with a heart-felt rendition of her classic “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” The song certainly has a much more layered meaning to me now than it did when I first heard it almost 45 years ago. And I am sure that it does for Thompson, too, perhaps even more so on this night, with his sons, Teddy and Jack Thompson present.
Teddy both harmonized with his father and traded verses with him on “Persuasion,” a soulful song about a man who refuses to give up on a love that seems unrequited. Jack was called out to play bass on a new song “Stony Ground” that will appear on a forthcoming album. Thompson joked about nepotism ruling the evening, but that was followed by shouts from the audience “Jack rules” – followed by a humorous Thompson retort, “Enough of that – whose show is this anyway?” But it was during the next song, “Back Street Slide,” that Jack really dug into the bass line and in return got an ear-to-ear grin from dad. Both boys, along with cousin, Zak Hobbs on guitar, helped out on a rousing version of “Wall of Death.”
The final song of the evening had the Thompson clan along with Martin Simpson on slide, Happy Traum on guitar, surprise guest John Sebastian on harp, Sloan Wainwright on vocals and her accompanist on mandolin doing the traditional Irish song “Will Ye Go Lassie Go”.
I was disappointed that this was the only time that Thompson and Simpson shared the stage. That aside, this was a really good show that was made most memorable by the obvious joy present in Richard while playing with his sons.
Four acts preceded Thompson’s appearance. Sloan Wainwright brought her big voice that seems to start in her feet and an engaging sense of stage presence and humor that the audience responded to. The final song of her three song set, “Live Out the Best of Your Life,” seemed to best capture her essence.
Happy Traum with special guest John Sebastian on harp followed Sloan and began their three-song set with “I Ain’t Got No Home” in tribute to the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. The song gave Traum a chance to show off his classic finger-picking and Sebastian some room to gently color the tune with his spot-on understated harp. Upon finishing the song, Happy commented that “I’ll probably see half of you tomorrow at the health food store.”
Next up was Teddy Thompson whose lyrics and singing voice would be right at home in Nashville. And with lyrics like “Love you’d be better off dead, with a bullet in your head, than come back to me” from “Down Low,” some country star is going to realize that this boy can write, grab some of his songs, and score hits.
Martin Simpson’s set captured the hard lives that were and continue to be lived by the less affluent. You could feel life’s struggle in his mournful slide introduction to “In the Pines” before he sang a word of the lyrics about a man who goes where “the wind blows and the sun never shines.” One of the highlights of the entire evening was a song he wrote about his father who loved life but was “Never Any Good” with jobs and money. His love for his father was echoed in the lyrics:
“And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature’s ways:
The greatest gifts I have ever known,
And I use them every day.”
Simpson’s set was far too short. If you have a love of traditional Celtic style music with the occasional delta blues tune thrown in, he is not to be missed.
RICHARD THOMPSON SET LIST
How Many Times
Walking On a Wire
The Good Stuff
Johnny’s Far Away
Vincent Black Lightning
Who Know Where the Time Goes
Good Things Happen to Bad People
Dry My Tears
Stony Ground (Jack on bass)
Back Street Slide (Jack on bass)
Persuasion (with Teddy)
Wall of Death (with Teddy, Jack & Zak)
Will Ye Go Lassie Go