Friday, June 22, 2007

Richard the Great

Right before heading to the Richard Thompson concert in Brooklyn yesterday, my friend, Ani, and I went to an art gallery in midtown Manhattan because Ani knew one of the artists whose work was being displayed. While waiting to speak to the artist, Ani and I got into a conversation about Richard Thompson and his amazing unpopularity. I wanted to use the term “acquired taste,” but that’s probably one of the snoodiest terms of all time and Thompson’s work is quite accessible upon an actual listen; it’s just that absolutely no one I know listens to him. When bringing up Thompson, I’m normally met with a collective “who?” and I’m left stuttering as how to describe him. Do I say folk? rock? folk rock? Or should I sound like a complete asshole and state that Rolling Stone ranked him as one of the 20 greatest guitarists ever. Whatever the case, the fact that Thompson never has achieved greater success is baffling but for the lucky few who do actually listen and the even fewer that saw him perform last night at Prospect Park, they were treated to one hell of a show.

After Olabelle played an opening set which I mostly missed (although I did hear their version of “Ain’t No More Cane,” which I know from The Basement Tapes) and the rain started to beat down, Thompson and his band came out. They began the night with “Needle and Thread” and “Bad Money,” both from his new album, Sweet Warrior. But the concert was stopped short by a pounding rain and beautiful bolts of lightning that actually lead one of the public announcers to come out onto the stage and say, “It’s not about staying dry, it’s about staying safe.”

15 minutes later, the band returned and kicked into the most political song on Warrior, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.” By “Dad,” Thompson’s referring to Baghdad and although it’s not the greatest song, it’s interesting, as Ani pointed out, to hear a British man utter the line, “At least we’re winning on the Fox Evening News.”

This is good point to stop and say just how amazing and tight the band sounded. Thompson is always at the top of his game and his supporting cast was right there beside him. They consisted of Michael Jerome on drums; Pete Zorn playing every instrument under the sun, including sax, trumpet, mandolin and acoustic guitar; and, although the booklet says Danny Thompson on bass, it wasn’t him and I can’t remember the bass player’s name, but they just kept chugging along behind Thompson’s two remarkable instruments: his guitar playing and his overwhelming voice.

The next song played was “Take Care the Road You Choose,” which is my favorite song on Warrior and they gave it a pretty true rendition. It’s a rather slow song with only the slightest solo by Thompson, and it really showed how captured the crowd was because during the quiet parts, there wasn’t much noise coming from the crowd that had a few thousand in it.

That would be the last song from Warrior for some time, and he now focused on his older material. After “The Wrong Heartbeat” and “Al Bowley’s in Heaven,” everyone but Thompson left the stage and he played, on acoustic guitar, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” That song holds the distinction of being the first of his that made me think, “Damn, he’s good.” I was sitting at my desk at SUNY Purchase either working on a paper or just browsing for something on the internet when it came on. His playing on the song is so intricate but sounds sloppy at the same time; as if he’s almost picking at the strings. The line that really got me was, “Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” I should also mention that Thompson has some of the most hilarious songs that I’ve ever heard. They’re sly and snarky in their humor, much like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” or Tom Waits’ “Time.”

After a rather standard take on “One Door Opens,” Thompson went on a good streak: a blazing “I’ll Never Give It Up”; the possible highlight of the night with “Hard on Me,” which might just be my favorite Thompson song and the studio version from Mock Tudor is exactly the way long guitar solos should be handled; and “Mingulay Boat Song” from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack and was a little boring. But the next four songs made up for that slightest of blunders: “The Man in Need,” “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Wall of Death” and “Read About Love.”

“Man,” “Bright Lights” and “Wall of Death” are all songs that Thompson originally performed with his ex-wife, Linda Thompson, with the first and last being on their seminal album, Shoot Out the Lights. During the transition from The Last Waltz to Blonde on Blonde as my favorite album, Shoot took over the top spot for about a month. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, hilarious and depressing, blazing and mellow—pretty much everything that makes a great album great. And “Wall of Death” might be my favorite track on it. It was odd hearing Zorn, not Linda, providing the backing vocals, but he did a good job.

As for “Read About Love,” it owns the distinction of being one of the few songs that makes me laugh every time I hear it. Here’s a sample lyric:

Asked my daddy when I was thirteen
"Daddy, can you tell me what a lover really means?"
His eyes went glassy, not a word was said
He poured another beer and his face turned red

Asked my mother, she acted the same
She never looked up, she seemed so ashamed
Asked my teacher, he reached for the cane
He said "Don't mention that subject again"


Well, well, well
When I touch you there it's supposed to feel nice
That's what it said in reader's advice
I've never been to heaven
But at least I've read about love

Dealing with giving females orgasms is a tender subject (no pun intended) and to sing a whole song about it without ever mentioning it (a la Seinfeld never mentioning masturbation in “The Contest) is a lot funnier than, say, Zappa’s “Dinah Moe Humm”—a good song but not as good as “Read About Love.”

That was the last song before the encore, which, when the boys come out again, consisted of “Sunset Song” and “Mr. Stupid,” both from Sweet Warrior. I was slightly disappointed that these two would be the last two songs but luckily for everyone there, they came out for a second encore.

This began with Thompson in a duet with his song, Teddy, on the acoustic driven “Persuasion.” It was a nice, touching moment and Richard was clearly moved by being able to sing with his son, who’s actually quite good. But that tender moment was forgotten when the last song of the night began. “Tear Stained Letter,” from the album Hand of Kindness, is a decent song on record but nothing to rave about. So, the fact that The Richard Thompson Band turned it into 10 minute red-hot jam was that much more impressive. The drumming was tight, the bass was steady, Zorn kept switching back and forth between acoustic guitar and getting some great sax solos and Thompson had his most impressive work of the night. At one point, either because a string broke on his fabulous green and white electric guitar (pictured above) or maybe for another reason, he actually switched to another guitar which a tech put around him…while Thompson was still playing the green guitar. Hendrix would have been proud. The song takes on a heavy New Orleans feel, which caused this couple in front of Ani and I to dance like they would in a brothel in the 20s. They were having a blast, Thompson was having fun and I was just in awe of Thompson’s amazing ability.

How people don’t look him more, I’ll never know.

Next Up: Wilco on the 26th

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