Richard Thompson Doesn't Fail to Charm at Great American Music Hall, 5/12/14

Categories: Last Night

Pamela Littky
Richard Thompson performs again tonight, May 13, at Great American Music Hall.
Richard Thompson (Solo Acoustic)
Monday, May 12, 2014
Great American Music Hall

Better than: Your estimation of what the phrase "solo acoustic" means.

"I have this magical formula for lack of success," says Richard Thompson, alone on stage with his guitar and his beret. It's the first of a two-show stand at Great American Music Hall, and Thompson is introducing "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," a song that elicits one of the more uproarious responses of the evening. "This was almost a hit in the U.K.," he quips. "This got to No. 41 in the Top 40."

In one sense, anyone who can more or less fill a club like the Great American for two nights has no right to whine about a lack of success, however wry their complaint. But on the other hand, you kind of know what Thompson means. As a performer, he wants for nothing: Those 10 fingers can wring an orchestra's worth of dynamics from one acoustic guitar, plucking brisk, ornate leads on the high strings while the growl of the bass ones shakes the room. His voice holds smooth and even when he pushes it high or low, and he totally owns that foggy London accent. His lyrics practically sing themselves:

Oh the last I heard she's sleeping rough back on the Derby beat
White Horse in her hip pocket and a wolfhound at her feet
And they say she even married once, a man named Romany Brown
But even a gypsy caravan was too much settling down
And they say her flower is faded now, hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay for the chains you refuse

So Thompson's combination of talents is stunning -- yet he's not wrong that most of the world hasn't gotten around to acknowledging it. The question is why. Why isn't "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" better known? Or "Walking on a Wire," or "Beeswing," or the many happier, funnier songs he's penned? Why does Thompson, now 65, have a stack of songwriting and musicianship awards, but so little public acclaim?

I'm tempted to say it's because we don't normally get him like this -- alone, with just voice and a guitar and nothing else to distract from all that his songs can do. Here there is nothing to conceal the fact that, say, "Read About Love" is a pretty funny story about how a generation's shameful attitude toward sex engendered so much confusion. Or that Thompson actually wrote (and performed!) a spiteful, goofy song about a developer called "Fergus Lang," which includes the line, "Fergus Lang, he builds and builds/Yet short is his erection." (The next line is about how Fergus Lang's hair looks good, but only if the wind is blowing in the right direction.)

But that isn't an airtight theory. Thompson's lyrics and guitar skills aren't exactly hiding when he plays with a band, and in my experience, his charming chattiness between songs -- a huge source of entertainment tonight -- reveals itself whether he's alone onstage or not. Maybe Richard Thompson is just too, er, British? Maybe he's too entranced by poetic meter and old-timey balladry? Maybe his guitar work, while clearly skilled, is too cerebral. (Thompson's long, intricate runs tonight don't climax with face-squishing bends like many players' solos do, but circle around a melodic theme, complicating it with short sprays of notes you weren't expecting.)

It's also true that not every Thompson song is a triumph. His show drags a little when he gets into more downbeat tunes like the newer "My Enemy," or clear political diatribes like "Pharaoh." It seems that he knows that, though, because Thompson will usually follow the more listless tunes with more lively ones. Of the 17 songs we get tonight, more than half are heart-quickeningly good -- they leave you shaking your head at Thompson's masterful guitar playing and rich poetics. Perhaps three out of the whole night would qualify as disappointing. That's a far better ratio than most artists can pull off, "successful" or not.

Critic's Notebook

British humor: Thompson excells as a banterer, whether answering drunken shout-outs from the audience or musing on the inspiration for his songs. And he's not always self-deprecating, although he did find the subtlest way of saying basically, "I have CDs in the back for sale" I've ever heard. "The British are very bad at selling, have you noticed that?," he said afterward. Then he joked that that Geico commercial with the Cockney-accented gecko would never work in the U.K., because any time "British people hear that voice, they automatically think, 'swindle.'"

Bright lights again: If you want to muse on his greatness firsthand, Thompson performs again at Great American Music Hall tonight, Tuesday, May 13, and tickets are still available.

When the Spell Is Broken
Walking on a Wire
Saving the Good Stuff For You
Johnny's Far Away
Fergus Lang
1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Sunset Song
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Genesis Hall
Good Things Happen to Bad People
My Enemy
Read About Love
The Dimming of the Day
Bathsheba Smiles
Crazy Man Michael

-- @iPORT

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"My Enemy" came between "Good Things" and "Read about Love".

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