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)
If I Could Live my Live Again
Turning of the Tide
The Ghost of You Walks
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
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.