There’s something about a solo Richard Thompson concert that’s both depressing and enlightening. His music allows the mind to wander from the gutter where the drunkards roll to the heavens where misguided motorcycle hoods get their last respite.
It’s also a time for contemplation, when riding on the wall of death is the nearest thing to being alive and it makes you consider, even briefly, quitting that job to go out and do something thrilling, even dangerous.
That’s the beauty of Thompson’s blithely insightful lyrics into heartache and despair that also tap the workings of the average man trapped in this mortal coil. Add to that some more than masterful guitar playing, and you’re in for one hell of an evening.
What makes Thompson something of an enigma is that wonderful playing and his ability to sound like two guitarists and a bass player at the same time — and do all three well — and yet still not be recognized the world over for the genius that he is. Sure, he’s a guitarist’s guitarist, and guitar fans follow in hot pursuit, but critical acclaim hasn’t meant critical success for Thompson, who has bounced from label to label while releasing more than 40 albums (including with Fairport Convention, Linda Thompson, solo and with a band) in a nearly 50-year career.
On this evening, however, none of that mattered when Thompson — always the quintessential showman, dressed in black jeans and boots, gray sweater, colorful scarf for a bohemian flare, and trademark black beret — hit the stage. Opening with the dark lament “Twist the Knife Again,” Thompson set the stage for an evening of musical diversity, alternating between fast and slow numbers, and always with dazzling playing that never looped back on itself. That is, even after composing hundreds of songs, Thompson’s ability to find fresh licks for each never ceases.
Thompson indicated he’s got a new album coming out in 2013 and played one song from it, a dark, edgy, mid-tempo tale about — what else — a cheating woman that might be called “You’re So Happy,” or “Good Things Happen to Bad People.” He didn’t say, but it was well received by the near sell-out crowd.
Thompson’s varied set included lesser-known tracks, like “Sunset Song” from Sweet Warrior, “Uninhabited Man,” “Crawl Back (Under My Stone),” and “Persuasion,” originally recorded as an instrumental for a film, with lyrics later added. He also squeezed in a sea chanty of sorts and a jaunty cover of Frank Loesser’s “Hamlet (Dog Eat Dog in Denmark).” But his biggest “hits” garnered the most attention and applause. These included “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “Wall of Death,” a rousing “Valerie,” “Feels So Good,” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with Thompson sounding like a Tuvan throat-singer as he deeply sung and extended the word “ride” at the end of each chorus.
Thompson also managed to assert some of his acerbic wit between songs, spoofing and riffing on Duane Eddy, who “got out of Phoenix as fast as he could,” and the “draconian laws” in Arizona. “I hope sex is still allowed in Arizona,” he chided, referring to immigration law SB 1070. “Get as much of it as you can while you can.”
The 90-minute show flowed smoothly and quickly, ending with a triple encore brought on by an appreciative crowd. Taking a suggestion from an audience member, Thompson concluded with a reverb-drenched “Shoot Out the Lights” that was dark, heavy, intense and powerful — and left everyone on their feet satisfied, but still hoping for just one more.
Personal bias: Richard Thompson never disappoints, whether with a band or solo. I see him every time he passes through.
The crowd: Mostly an older crowd of fans in the know, but also some younger folks clearly there to study the guitar-playing.
Random notebook dump: Why isn’t this guy more appreciated by the general populace? Few people can do what this man does with a guitar.