By Blake Maddux
The caliber of Richard Thompson’s voice is undiminished. His always expressive, frequently soothing timbre was perfectly intact.
The esteemed singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson said after his opening number (“Stony Ground”) at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center Thursday night, “This is my first time here. It’s all very exciting. Especially the lobster rolls.”
It was very exciting to me, as well, even if I hadn’t treated myself to any of the local fare.
Having seen the OBE recipient at pretty much every venue that he has played in Cambridge, Boston (except the Paradise), Somerville, Newburyport, and Beverly since 2004, it was quite a thrill to see the folk-rock luminary at yet another, and a grand one at that.
While it is difficult (but not impossible) to imagine the 73-year-old putting on a bad show, I have found myself disappointed over the years by what I have yet to hear him play live.
This slight disappointment again reared its head late last week.
Given the high bar that Thompson set early in his career as a cofounder of the pioneering folk-rock assemblage Fairport Convention, it was only reasonable for Shalin Liu’s paying customers — of which I was, admittedly, not one — to have expected a certain level of quality from his set of offerings.
Thus, my personal uncertainty regarding the wisdom of some of his inclusions.
“Valerie,” the fourth song of the evening, is a great pop ditty with some strikingly clever rhymes (e.g., “She don’t get home till 5 or 4 or 3,” “I can’t afford her on my salary”). However, it is hardly — despite the typically dazzling fretwork — exemplary of Thompson’s songwriting mastery.
I have long wondered why he keeps this one around. Perhaps the audience’s response at its beginning, middle, and end should settle the matter for me.
“Walking the Long Miles Home,” is another completely acceptable tune that is enjoyable to sing along to.
But the rhymes aren’t especially imaginative and the content hardly seems to indicate that it was inspired — as he told the crowd and wrote in his 2021 memoir (click for my Arts Fuse interview about it) — by his wee-hour voyages back to his parent’s suburban house after seeing two sets by The Who in London on school nights.
If he is going to pick two tracks from 1999’s excellent Mock Tudor, which he did (the also good-not-great “Cooksferry Queen” was the other), I suggest that one of them be “Sights and Sounds of London Town,” which I’ve never seen him perform.
As for selections from his time with his former wife Linda, Thompson introduced “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” the title track from their 1974 debut, as “more danceable and fun,” and also “a hit in the UK … the only one.”
That’s fine and all, but why in nearly two decades has he never treated an audience (at least that I was in) to that album’s “When I Get to the Border” (or “The End of the Rainbow” or “We Sing Hallelujah”)?
He was smart, though, to choose “Wall of Death” from 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, which only I and few others do not consider to be one of the greatest rock albums of the past 40 years. (And to have Zara Phillips accompany him on it. More on her later.)
Thompson’s representation of his time (1967-1971) with Fairport Convention was hard to protest. “Genesis Hall” and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” (which was voted Favourite Folk Track of All Time by BBC Radio 2 listeners in 2007) are as good as anything from that group’s catalog.
He acknowledged that he could not sing “Who Knows…?” as well as the incomparable Sandy Denny did, but asserted that his work was done if he prompted you to seek out the original version on YouTube.
But if I had my choice of a pair of Fairports, I’d go with “Crazy Man Michael” – a jaw-dropping version of which appeared on Acoustic Classics II in 2017 – and “Now Be Thankful,” which RT saw fit to include on the 2021 digital release Live From London.
The rest of the set was peppered with plum picks, but all of the so-far unmentioned ones were from 1991 onward, meaning that he neglected (forgot about?) 1988’s stellar Amnesia.
Among the plums were the sublime “Persuasion” (co-written by Crowded House’s Tim Finn), the poignant “The Ghost of You Walks,” the rollicking “Johnny’s Far Away,” and “Keep Your Distance,” which Thompson claimed “should have made him a household name” as the “social distancing theme” song.
The last was one of several on which Zara Phillips, a fellow singer-songwriter and author who is partners with Thompson, stepped up to the mic.
Others included “Tinker’s Rhapsody” from the 2021 EP Serpent’s Tears; “Singapore Sadie, which he indicated would appear on a 2023 release; and “She Was Lost in the Crowd,” a song that I did not recognize and on the details regarding which Thompson was mum.
Phillips was admirably up to the task of handling the parts sung over several decades by Denny, Linda, Judith Owen (“Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen”), and Siobhan Kennedy (“She Never Could Resist a Winding Road”).
Thompson, meanwhile, was also in predictably fine form throughout the 21-song set. The caliber of his voice is undiminished. He might not sound like a 20-something, but he never really did, and he certainly hasn’t suffered the stress that one would expect more than 50 years of performing to induce. His always expressive, frequently soothing timbre was perfectly intact.
Last but not least, the late film critic Roger Ebert postulated that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”
Although Ebert admitted to at least one exception in each case (and apparently did not review the one movie that they were both in), I can confidently say that no Richard Thompson concert that includes either “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or “Beeswing” can be altogether bad, even if it excludes stuff I’d love to experience in a live setting.
This one included both. That should tell you a lot.
And the more I think about it, the fee that Thompson could command for a “highest quality material” show would probably be prohibitive.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.