THE RICHARD THOMPSON BAND / DIANA JONES The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 19 October 2007

Self-confessed Man In Black fan Diana Jones is a bit late for the “new Johnny Cash” tag now that Mary Gauthier has already apparently bagged that accolade, but with her songs about death, religion, Native Americans and gently progressive politics she’s not half a world away from the mark. She sings in a winning country drawl, and her rootsy, if hardly revelatory, songs are about stuff; she deserves the crowd’s warm applause.

This being my first Richard Thompson concert, I don’t really know what to expect, apart from a general air of conspicuous craftpersonship. Mostly sporting the same mint green electric guitar seen on the back of his latest long-player, “Sweet Warrior”, he doesn’t disappoint, exactly. Everything performed is delivered with predictable Úlan, and the band – the impassive Danny “No Relation” Thompson on upright bass, percussion phenomenon Michael Jerome and reed-and-string-driven-things expert Pete Zorn – are superb. Yet somehow, despite an obvious rapport with the audience, he doesn’t really connect.

Perhaps it’s the song selection. Such is the depth and consistency of the Thompson canon that everybody’s going to go home disappointed to a degree, despite a generous two-hour set. Half of “Sweet Warrior” receives an airing, which is fair enough given that it’s his latest effort, and it’s great to hear two songs – the title track and “Withered And Died” – from the legendary, seminal etc. “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”. Perhaps the evening’s highlights are brilliant renditions of “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven” and “1952 Vincent Black Lighting”, although I’m still not entirely comfortable with the latter’s glorification of criminality, and there’s a “Wall Of Death” but no “Shoot Out The Lights”. However, I’d’ve happily swapped a couple of the more predictable rockers – “Read About Love”, maybe – that got the more elderly members of the audience jiggling mysteriously for “Beeswing” or something/anything from “Henry The Human Fly”. And despite Thompson’s noted six-string facility, and his mischievous grins during his guitar solos, I could’ve done with a little more concision in that department as well.

Still, it was an impeccably crafted evening’s entertainment, albeit one missing that vital spark that turns a good concert into a truly great one.

RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON Shoot Out The Lights (4 Men With Beards) 

Emphatically not a breakup album – many of its eight songs having been written and first recorded long before the 1982 dissolution of Thompsons’ marriage – there’s still something disturbingly prescient about the likes of “Don’t Renege On Our Love”, “Walking On A Wire”, “Man In Need”, heck, about pretty much the entire record. It certainly sound like an album suffused with mordant dread as a relationship buckles and folds around it, which isn’t to say it’s not brilliant, and arguably one of Richard’s most consistent sets. In fact, there’s multilayered extra poignancy when Linda sings his lyrics, the multiplying permutations of who’s trying to articulate whose feelings becoming far too complex to contemplate. The album’s highlight, though, is the atypical “Just The Motion”. A respite from the surrounding bile and bitterness, it’s a gentle, soothing lullaby that might be considered the calm centre of the storm.

The younger me might have preferred the softer, more musically diverse cover versions found on the tribute album “Beat The Retreat: The Songs Of Richard Thompson”. However, older and perhaps wiser, I now recognise that the RT experience is a deceptively strong and bitter one that requires acclimatising to. There’s a whole orchestra of supporting folk-rock talent here, including fellow Fairporters Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and David Mattacks, Clive Gregson and The Watersons, and the almost inevitable production presence of Joe Boyd. But there’s also a sense that “Shoot Out The Lights” is as much a resumption of Richard’s solo career as the duo’s swansong, it being difficult to discard the suspicion that Linda, pregnant at the time of the recording sessions, is becoming increasingly marginalised.

4 Men With Beard’s vinyl reissue has all the frosty intensity of an icepick to the skull. There’s precious little analogue warmth here, something that may or may not be appropriate to the content depending on the listener’s personal affinities.

RICHARD THOMPSON The Lowry, Salford 14 & 15 January 2011

 

I had some reservations about plunking down for two successive nights at The Lowry in the company of Mr Thompson. On the one occasion I’d seen him previously, the expected fleet-fingered folk-rock fusion seemed to be drowned out by a kind of old bloke rock, almost as if the artist was pandering to the sea of grey and white hair and black leather jackets that constituted much of his audience. Happily, though, my fears are unfounded; as of January 2011, Mr Thompson is on stunning form.

               

The format of both nights is the same, a set of songs from his latest, recorded-live long player “Dream Attic”, followed by a shorter set of what he describes as “hits, with a small h”. Both “Dream Attic” sets omit two of the albums 13 songs, meaning that anyone attending both nights gets to hear the album in its entirety. A shrewd judge of his own work, none of the four songs that don’t quite make the A-grade are significant omissions. Multiple performances of the remainder suggest that maybe half-a-dozen “Dream Attic” moments stand comparison with the best of the man’s canon.

               

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that he’s backed by the same talented band he recorded the album with during an American tour a year ago, the “Dream Attic” set sounds very much like the record. “Among The Gorse, Among The Grey” replicates its unsettling sense of hushed threat, “A Brother Slips Away” its elegiac calm. “If Love Whispers Your Name” is astonishing, providing ample ammunition for those who’d argue that Thompson is this country’s finest electric guitarist. I’m no musician myself, but I find myself transfixed, following his fingers across the fretboard as he rips out those immaculate solos. Perhaps the biggest revelation, and the one song that utterly transcends its recorded performance, is the murder ballad “Sidney Wells”, which (pun unintended, but I’m leaving it in) slays, especially on the second night. Lent added pungency by the acrid timbre of Pete Zorn’s soprano sax and Joel Zifkin’s electric violin, the band work themselves into the kind of smoky, folky frenzy that’s arguably been absent from their leader’s music since “Liege & Lief”.

               

The “hits with a small h” set draws from all points of the man’s post-Fairport catalogue. On the first night “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” disappoints slightly, the vague, foggy thump of the album version being substituted for a kind of streamlined precision, but 24 hours later I’m more open-minded and it sounds just fine. “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven” becomes a vehicle for round-robin solo spots from each musician, Michael Jerome’s habit of bashing his drum kit with his palms being particularly noteworthy, and “Tear Stained Letter” provokes much exuberant yelling from the audience during its rowdier moments. “Man In Need” as a Saturday set-closer seems like being short-changed compared with the previous night’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”, though.

               

Unconvinced as I was initially, now I’m a believer. With great songs and an astonishing band, Richard Thompson OBE (“Ticket prices will be going up”, notes one heckler) deserves widespread public recognition as the beloved entertainer he so obviously is.

RICHARD THOMPSON Dream Attic (Proper) 

Richard Thompson’s latest long player is an album of new material recorded live. The only records I can think of made under similar circumstances are Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away” (and even Neil would rather we didn’t think about that), Tom Waits’ “Nighthawks At The Diner” and Hendrix’s “Band Of Gypsys”. What surprises slightly, given that these songs were recorded in concert, is how they sounded even better during Thompson’s recent UK tour, perhaps due to his gifted band having had an extra year to grapple with their intricacies.

The somewhat trad rock plod of “The Money Shuffle” makes for a slightly disappointing opener, although the lyrical duplicity and malevolence is typical Thompson as he skewers the financial disservices industry with single-minded entendres. “Among The Gorse, Among The Grey”’s unsteady roil is an exemplar of veiled threat; it morphs seamlessly into “Haul Me Up”, which feeds the slapback sound of mid-50s Sun Studios rhythm and blues through RT’s folk-rock filter. “Here Comes Geordie” is a none-so-subtle dig at a Tyneside singer/actor/jetsetting ecowarrior…can you tell who it is yet? The sinister thump of “Demons In Her Dancing Shoes” might not be the most innovative thing he’s ever done, and “Crimescene”'s catalogue of allusions and images doesn’t quite add up to the bigger picture narrative it seems to want to be, despite featuring a strange, string-scraping percussive effect that sounds like a tube train and a guitar solo of intensely-focussed rage. The melancholic almost-pop of “Big Sun Falling In The River” combines the forlorn sweet-and-sourness of a crumbling relationship with a Kinks-eye view of London. Modern(ish)-day murder ballad “Sidney Wells” is great in a macabre way, and a model of fast-moving, concise storytelling, with not a word wasted, but I’ve heard it delivered with even more volcanic intensity in subsequent concerts. The gently elegiac “A Brother Slips Away” is another highlight; “Bad Again”, a standard RT bad behaviour rocker (see also “Bad Monkey” from his previous album “Sweet Warrior”) isn’t. It’s immediately redeemed, however, by the closing “If Love Whispers Your Name”, which dispels its nagging (and perhaps intentional, come to think of it) melodic similarity to “A Love You Can’t Survive” by finding Thompson at his least cynical, contemplating the transformative powers of love and channelling the wonderment into the record’s most astonishing guitar solo, logically plotted yet constantly surprising.

“Dream Attic” is overlong at 73 minutes and plagued with patches of dullness, but there’s an astonishing 40- or 50-minute album somewhere in these grooves, one that can comfortably stand shoulder to shoulder with anything else he’s released in his storied career. The vinyl pressing (of unspecified origin, but the machine stamps in the deadwax are strongly reminiscent of the work of GZ Vinyl) is pretty good if not of audiophile standard, making it a bit disappointment that responsibility for the album’s black plastic incarnation wasn’t handed to Diverse Music, who’ve created vinyl versions of the man’s last two albums.

Fairport Convention

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