The current tour is Richard Thompson’s first full-band electric excursion for quite a while. He’s leading a quartet featuring old stalwarts Danny Thompson on bass and Pete Zorn on various guitars, reeds and mandolins (and superb harmony vocals) together with drummer Michael Jerome. They’ve been on the road a while now, and consequently are as well-drilled as a crack marine unit.
When Thompson is in full electric mode, there is inevitably a greater focus on his more upbeat, raucous rock-friendly material as opposed to the doom-laden balladry. But this is more than outweighed by seeing and hearing one of the finest guitarists of his generation in full flow – and tonight he was as good, if not better, than I’ve ever seen him. Indeed, they were several spots in this set where the band played like a jazz combo. They charged through the first couple of choruses before each took a solo. Despite it being Thompson’s show, he was more than happy to sit back and let the others have the limelight on occasion.
There was an immense amount of confidence on show tonight. Not only was the playing of the highest standard, but Thompson’s singing, often considered the weakest string on his bow, was exemplary. There was also a confidence in the strength of the new material. When you have a back catalogue of the depth and quality that Thompson has, each new song played will inevitably be at the expense of an old favourite. The latest album Sweet Warrior contributed more than a quarter of the songs tonight, including the first four played. It’s a testament to the quality of the record that none of them felt out of place. Indeed, of the opening quartet, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” is out of the very top drawer – a clever, but dark, look into the fears of a grunt stuck in Baghdad confronting hostile locals and wondering what the hell he’s doing there. The best of the selections from the recent record, though, popped up later. “Guns Are The Tongues” sounds mightily impressive on the album, but was positively monumental tonight. It’s a rousing tale of a young lad quite literally seduced into joining a terrorist cell, and his messy demise. It’s an epic, stirring piece, and is destined to remain one of the cornerstones of his set for years to come.
The old songs varied between nuggets like “Bright Lights”, “Wall Of Death” and an exemplary swing-time “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven”, and songs chosen because they allowed for lengthy improvisation. “Tear-Stained Letter” and “Hard On Me” particularly stood out. The latter, from Mock Tudor, isn’t particularly a front rank Thompson song, but his soloing on it was absolutely blistering. There is no grandstanding, no clichéd arpeggios or theatricals during a Thompson solo. There is always one foot grounded in the melody, whilst the other is free to go just about anywhere. He’s far more in common with Charlie Parker than Eddie Van Halen.
Acousticity wasn’t completely abandoned, with a short two song solo spot delivered around half way through the two hour (including encores) set. One of these was “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (had to be really), one of his most enduringly popular tunes. For me, the main delight of seeing Thompson play this track live is watching his unbelievably dextrous playing which resembles the raga-blues of Davy Graham.
Richard Thompson shows never fail to please. Tonight, however – even by his own standards – was an absolute triumph. The man is nearly 60 (and admittedly looks it), but sings and plays like someone half his age. Magnificent stuff.