Live Review – Bill Charlap Trio at The Egg Swyer Theatre, Sunday, December 19, 2021

Short and sweet, that was Bill Charlap’s all-Washingtons trio Sunday at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre. Give the guys (jazz pianist Charlap with drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington, but not related) extra points for NOT playing any Christmas tunes.
The most old-fashioned player of his (boomer) generation, the versatile Charlap played fluently in the vocabularies of his predecessors. Thunderous McCoy Tyner-ish bass chords here, dazzling-fast runs ala Oscar Peterson or even Art Tatum there; some of Duke Ellington’s elegantly restrained swing, oblique Thelonious Monk geometry, tidy Teddy Wilson circumspection, Bill Basie’s sly syncopated high-up codas.
Yet, nothing sounded borrowed or archly antique. These guys loved that music for real.
In nondescript dark suits and ties with white shirts, they started dramatically with a rambunctious jump into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before settling into an easy-chair vamp, welcoming and smooth. The happy syncopated clatter of Gerald Wiggins’s “A Fifth for Frank” flowed into a drums and piano dialog, Kenny Washington wrapping up his solo break by playing the melody. 
As musical but soft-spoken a drummer as we have today, Kenny W.  often played brushes in accompaniment, then switched to sticks, never hitting very hard and always swinging. In the understated way of quiet sparse bassists, Peter Washington always hit just the right accents. And for all his buttoned-down look and sparse song intros, Charlap played with lots of body English, exuberant physical energy pumping the up-tempo tunes, while he sank reflectively into the ballads, hardly moving except his hands.
In Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” they alternated bars in three, then four, to start, then Charlap reached for the adrenaline and raised everybody’s pulse. He used his high gear sparingly, most often to surprise, and always with taste. After “Lady,” he kept his foot on the gas into “Out of Nowhere,” then eased into a gentler swing, Kenny W. simmering down with his brushes. When Peter W. glanced a cue at Charlap to close his bass solo and invite the guys into the recap, Kenny W. was there already, shifting to sticks to accentuate the melody.
Then he led with fleet brushwork into “In the Still of the Night,” another classic that Charlap transformed by taffy-pulling the tempo. Peter W. chimed in helpfully here, revving from walk into a sprint, dynamic deluxe, before stepping back for Charlap to coda alone.
Charlap launched “Here’s That Rainy Day” solo, too; then the Washingtons kept things soft and sweet. Same thing in “April in Paris” – Charlap mapped the journey alone, then the Washington’s accessorized the ride. But where “Rainy Day” opened an umbrella of gentle, unbroken lyricism over everything, “April” wandered some before an emphatic stop and go coda.
In a medley of Monk’s “Round Midnight” into “Criss Cross,” Charlap led without seams but with lots of driving melodic intelligence as tempo shifts often hit at different points than the chord changes. 
Closing the set came two tunes Charlap didn’t announce. I think it was the cozy-then-more-expansive “The Duke” from their new “Street of Dreams” album next to last; then a faster, high-flying post-bop romp that generated heat and light. “The Duke” packed a breezy swing, but their last tune swung for the fences.
Without leaving but letting us know they were wrapping up, the trio enjoyed the standing ovation, then reached for their instruments again for “Body and Soul” – all their bluesy ballad strengths on proud display.
At 75 minutes, it felt a bit too short, though that may be just hoping for more of their beautifully articulated classic jazz. Their skills so confident, so impressive in the service of such classy expression, we didn’t want them to leave. As individuals, they quietly claimed our attention, then kept it. Kenny W. would hit a wonderful lick and my eyes would stay with him, until I might miss seeing Peter W. play a particularly tasteful bass riff. Watching him then might distract from a Charlap flourish. 
All good, though; all good.

Richard Thompson at The Egg Swyer Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021

LIVE REVIEW

Rejoicing to be among “human beings” once again on Sunday at The Egg’s (smaller) Swyer Theatre, the very British all-skills troubadour Richard Thompson promised “a wild evening of depressing songs.” 

As usual, he delivered that, but much more. He first wryly drenched the place in gloom; then he very gradually raised the mood through the happiest songs – new songs at that – we’ve heard from this mighty master of the macabre and the melancholy, of rancor and regret. Thompson also recalled favorite can’t-miss tunes that, along with interstellar guitar, fans greeted like old friends.

Reading excerpts from his memoir “Beeswing” allowed Thompson to cite both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Buck Owens in song intros.

As for the songs, some danced in waltz time including the new “As I Hold You” and “Tinker’s Rhapsody.”  Some moved behind titles with participles or gerunds: “Turning of the Tide,” “Walking on a Wire,” “Walking the Long Miles Home.” In fact, most songs worked like verbs; verses and choruses whose vivid feeling states moved as actions. Their plots plumbed the depths of despond or lit and lifted like sunlight. Usually they built a verse-chorus pair or two, then came a guitar solo – revved supersonic or sad beyond sad – then some more pointed words, a stunning coda.

He started on “Stony Ground,” upbeat saga of frustrated geriatric yearning. As if that weren’t regret enough, he next mused “If I Could Live My Life Again,” a new tune, devastating as his old tunes. Here he uncorked his first I-can’t-believe-it guitar solo, all desperate velocity and accelerated angst.

While the slower “Persuasion” opened the door to hope for the first time, it also slammed it again. More angst; and yet more still in “Turning of the Tide” which, like “Stony Ground,” measured time out in deep-quaffed cups of pain.

Then, in “The Ghost of You Walks,” Thompson celebrated love even in its loss, as something supernaturally enduring.

He knew just when to open the curtains and let the sun shine in, with a superbly poignant “Beeswing,” another lost love lament but redeemed by sheer beauty, a perfect package of words and wonder with his loveliest guitar phrasing. “Walking on a Wire” – yet another pained paean of endurance despite great loss – cast its mood slowly, surging through a mad scramble of guitar that brought big applause. Similarly titled but much lighter, “Walking the Long Miles Home” recalled late night treks home afoot when the Who played past the leaving of the last train. He briefly forgot the words to a verse in this nostalgic postcard from his past. 

Even the driving “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” – armed robbery, shotgun death, ignition key as love letter – used great beauty to etch great sadness, leaving us somehow happier as this twinkly-eyed pessimist always somehow manages even in tunes of doom.

Paying tribute to his late bandmate Sandy Denny (in Fairport Convention) with her song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” Thompson gave the lyric’s serene resignation its full poignant punch.

Next  he teased and got a hearty singalong in “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” cynical and dark as his father’s police work as a London detective.

To make harmony a continuing feature, he summoned the slim, young, black-dressed singer Zara Phillips to sing in the daredevil saga “Wall of Death” whose mid-slow tempo revved the tune through bravado and danger. She stayed through to the end of the 90-minute set, mainly singing on the choruses. Perhaps understandably, her singing lacked Thompson’s punch and gravity, or maybe was just under-mic’ed.

“The Fortress” next bypassed everything upbeat, menacing words and driving beat diving deep into doomed destinies. “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman” held this dour mood. 

After that stately antique, the cautionary “Keep Your Distance,” slow and big, cast its menace in contemporary terms as Thompson referenced social distancing; but without denting its intent and meaning, to frame love as all or nothing.

Wow, then, Thompson brought the sunlight of hope, of love enduring, in “As I Hold You.” This new song pledged a permanence that nearly all the previous songs despaired of finding.

The upbeat “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” portrayed city life as neon-splashed, exciting – one of the best songs Thompson wrote and recorded with first wife-singer Linda. 

Thompson re-took the stage quickly for encores, the fan-requested upbeat “Cooksferry Queen” sang it solo with terrific energy. He left again and brought Phillips back to duet in “Tinker’s Rhapsody” – a happy new song, but not without its own bad-times echoes.

They closed with “When the Saints Rise Out of Their Graves” – an apocalyptic beware-of-judgement-day warning too scary for Mardi Gras, with an inexorable driving beat.

Thompson’s new tunes – “If I Could Live My Life Again,” “The Fortress,” “As I Hold You,” “Tinker’s Rhapsody,” “When the Saints Rise Out of their Graves” – stood tall alongside classics often decades old – “Beeswing,” “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.”

Sui generis, he’s a style unto himself, with echoes of centuries-old murder ballads and spry antique swing; and he rocked it at times but without using the blues at all as crutch or chair. Musically and emotionally generous at 72, Thompson hasn’t lost velocity or imagination at the guitar; delicate and complex as lace, dense and looming as a logjam. Playing, speaking or singing, he also hasn’t lost a whit of wit. And his voice still has its full range and punch, including the low motorcycle growl of “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” the howl of “Cooksferry Queen,” the dour reflection of “Persuasion,” the loving, simple fervent promise of “As I Hold You.”  

Thompson beautified heartbreak as powerfully as Joni Mitchell, or Jackson Browne on a good (bad) day. 

His best songs seemed to exorcise pain, while also proclaiming it inevitable, essential to the human condition. He vanquished it through a stoic acceptance that took away its power.

Time, decried in song after song as a thief of our lives and happiness, hasn’t dimmed Thompson’s day.

THE SET LIST

(Cryptically scrawled on a green paper scrap smaller than the ticket and assiduously decoded)

Stony Ground

If I Could Live my Live Again

Persuasion

Turning of the Tide

The Ghost of You Walks

Beeswing

Walking on a Wire

Walking the Long Miles Home

Vincent Black Lightning 1952

Who Knows There the Time Goes

Down where the Drunkards Roll

Add Zara Phillips

Wall of Death

Fortress

Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman

Keep Your Distance

As I Hold You

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

First encore, solo: Cooksferry Queen

Second encore, with Phillips: Tinker’s Rhapsody; then When the Saints Rise Out of their Graves

Check out my colleagues’ fine fine take on the show at www.nippertown.com – Laura DaPolito’s words and Jim Gilbert’s photos. How fun to hear someone’s reaction to their first Thompson show, and DaPolito absolutely got it, got him.

Sunday’s show was about my 20th, including solo shows in Northampton and New Orleans, others with bands were mostly at The Egg and often in the (larger) Hart Theatre.

For my first Thompson show – early 80s, maybe? – I drove to Northampton alone and back in freezing rain, two-plus hours each way on black-iced roads. And he was worth it.