City Recital Hall, March 11
There is always an edge to Richard Thompson’s work: only the keenness varies. Whether that edge is bittersweet, sarcastic, witty or devastating, it juts from his songs like his perennial black beret does from his head. That’s not to say the man lacks warmth. On the contrary, you can’t write songs like Beeswing or Josephine without having a heart the size of a house, and yet his presence on a stage is muted, because despite doing it for nearly half a century Thompson seems forever wary of the distortions that plague the performer/audience relationship.
He began with the very essence of his art: alone with an acoustic guitar, delivering such brilliantly-crafted songs as Johnny’s Far Away. (Only Thompson would think of writing a sea shanty about a cruise ship!) Alas his guitar’s bottom “E” string was burdened with too much bass through the PA, slightly blighting the wonderful 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, although that fatness suited on the old Fairport Convention classic, Who Knows Where The Time Goes?.
He joked about being his own support act, and after the break strapped on a Stratocaster for what was supposedly the main event, with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome. That opening acoustic set remained the night’s ultimate jewel, however, even though we were showered with more gems, including the poignant Broken Doll, the ever-magnificent Al Bowlly’s In Heaven, and the slow-burn potency of If Love Whispers Your Name, with its ghostly denouement.
Then there were the songs that showed just what an extraordinary electric guitarist Thompson can be, such as the rocking Can’t Win and Guitar Heroes, with its little stylistic tributes to Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Chuck Berry and Hank Marvin. Jerome, meanwhile, proved a resourceful, accomplished drummer, and Prodaniuk a straighter, solid bassist.
The reason the acoustic set won out was simply that too often the words were lost in the electric onslaught, and I’m a sucker for being sliced up by that keen edge.