Concert Review: Richard Thompson — Moments of Sublimity

He came up with one of those transcendent Richard Thompson moments, one to match anything I’ve seen onstage this year.

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson — not settling into a comfortable late-career groove.

By Brett Milano

Alright Richard Thompson, you win again. Here I was set to write a tepid review about how his last half-dozen albums (including the just-released, Jeff Tweedy-produced Still) have been good but basically interchangeable; how his live shows are solid but no longer surprising, and how he may be settling into a comfortable late-career groove. Then he hits me on Saturday night (at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre) with one of those transcendent Richard Thompson moments, one to match anything I’ve seen onstage this year.

The song was an obscure one: “If Love Whispers Your Name,” which quietly came and went on 2010’s Dream Attic album and didn’t make much impression when performed on that tour. Whatever magic Thompson worked on the tune Saturday night—slowing/stripping it down a tad, inhabiting the lyric a bit more—was enough to turn a pleasant ballad into a profound grabber. The song’s about the redemptive power of love from the outside looking in, the singer knows he’ll be staying out there for awhile. On Saturday the song’s climactic guitar solo was the proverbial cry from the heart—full of Thompson’s trademark octave leaps and string-bends, but wildly emotional at every turn. No surprise when the band walked off afterward, just 70 minutes into the regular set—It was the first time in memory that a non-hit ballad had made an effective set-closer.

Thompson was actually onstage more than two hours on Saturday. Scheduled opening act Doug Paisley broke his hand on the eve of the show, so Thompson opened for himself acoustically before playing the main set with his electric trio (drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, both fluid and finessed players—a Blue Cheer power trio this ain’t). As usual he dipped into his back catalogue for some obligatory tunes (the motorcycle ballad “1957 Vincent Black Lightning” and the Cajun raveup “Tear Stained Letter” are the greatest hits, far as fans are concerned) and some rarely-performed ones (Trainspotters will note the rare Thompson vocal on the spooky “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed,” originally sung in 1982 by his then-wife Linda).

As usual, however, he favored the more recent material. The main surprise about Still is how little Tweedy/Wilco influence it shows—If anything, Tweedy’s work harks back to the spare folk-rock production Joe Boyd did with Thompson in the ’70s. Most of the new songs were recognizably Thompsonesque: Ballads (“Broken Doll”) that lament the distance in love relationships; and rockers (“All Buttoned Up”) that treat the same subject in more pissed-off terms.

The album’s only real departure, also played midway through Saturday’s show, is “Guitar Heroes”—yes, a song about guitar heroes, of which Thompson’s are Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, James Burton, Hank Marvin, and Chuck Berry. Full of tricky time and key changes, the song includes a break in the style of each guitarist, capped off with a barnburner of his own. Linking them together is a ’50’s rock-styled ditty about all the teenaged fun Thompson missed so he could figure out his heroes’ licks. Conceptually it’s a bit goofy, musically it’s a pure showoff move—and from an artist this tasteful, such cheap thrills are to be cherished.

Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.

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