- by Kevin Orton Rating: Release Date: Label:
When we think of Rock’s great guitar gods, Hendrix, Clapton and Page always come to mind. Its criminal Richard Thompson remains a too well-kept secret. These days, he’s more famous for not being more famous. In addition to a spellbinding virtuoso, he’s also a wickedly talented songwriter.
I confess, when guitar gods go into epic shredding mode, I tune out. The one exception is Thompson. I hang on his every note. It’s not just playing for playing’s sake, it always has something to say. And when he improvises, it always goes to some place unexpected. As evidenced by his performance at NYC’s Town Hall Nov 11th, Thompson never indulges. He dazzles. And when he goes out on a limb, he takes his audience with him.
Thompson’s latest, 13 Rivers, is a strong offering and unsurprisingly, it was given a lot of stage time. Blistering renditions of ‘Bones of Gilead’, ‘The Rattle Within’ and ‘The Storm Won’t Come’ were on hand. In addition to a fiery, ‘Her Love Was Meant For Me.’
“I know it’s the classics you want,” Thompson quipped eventually, and in that department he did not disappoint. He raised the roof with the ferocious likes of ‘Put It There Pal’ and ‘Can’t Win’. Thompson positively howling out, ‘’The nerve of some people!” before his guitar erupted in a complete onslaught of rage. Going to show, that despite his Folksy Fairport Convention roots, the man can be Punk as shit.
Speaking of Fairport, a true surprise came with a rarity from 1969’s What We Did On Our Holiday. ‘Tale In Hard Time’ is a song Thompson never sang on the album. In those days, he wasn't that confident as a vocalist. He disclosed he wrote it at 19 and that it was never played live much. Nevertheless, it’s a haunting song with the immortal opening, “Take the sun from my eyes, let me learn to despise”. It’s always been a favorite Fairport song of mine and this is the first time I’ve ever heard Thompson sing it himself. Stunning.
Also stunning were the numbers he performed solo on acoustic guitar. His performance of ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ was on fire and ‘Beeswing’ left a lump in the audience’s collective throat. You could hear a pin drop during both numbers. If that weren’t enough, he offered up a world weary ‘Dimming of the Day’. Memorably sung by ex-wife Linda on 1975’s Pour Down Like Silver. After some self-deprecating joke about the poor sales of 2017’s Acoustic Rarities, Thompson performed a moving, ‘They Tore the Hippodrome Down’. I confess, it wasn’t my favorite track on the Rarities album, but the touching performance here has changed that.
Thompson admitted, ‘Guitar Heroes’ is a silly song and its little more than a chance for him to playfully show off. Paying tribute to his influences from Django to Les Paul to James Burton, the song ends with the punchline, “I still don’t know how my heroes did it.” Fluffy fun but not really what fans are clamoring for. He more than made up for it with a rousing, ‘Wall of Death’ and an all too welcome, ‘Tear Stained Letter’.
If there was any disappointment, it was when several audience members cried out for ‘Calgary Cross’. Thompson cheekily responded by ending with a new, unfamiliar tune. What’s more, it was dark number which tipped its hat bleakly to Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. I don’t blame the guy. How many times has he played ‘Calgary Cross’ over the last 44 years? Why not give them something new instead? The fact that he knowingly blew off the ‘Cross’ is reason enough to see him again. Which I won’t hesitate to do. From Lou Reed to Bowie, my heroes have all been dropping like flies of late. Pretty much everyone else I grew up listening to, is either dead or not feeling too well. So now be thankful Thompson’s still at. And just as vital and formidable as he ever was.