"This is not normal. I have a real life," stated Richard Thompson upfront at the first of his two "All Request Show" solo acoustic gigs last week (Nov. 16 and 18) at City Winery.
He was addressing the special nature of the shows--which he does now and then--as well as the eager anticipation of all those in the room who had scribbled song requests on little slips of paper collected and tossed into the giant silver punch bowl perched to his right.
"Anyone who didn't fill out a request [form] probably didn't vote in the election, either!" Thompson scolded, then admonished everyone that he would ignore all shouted requests, and that he would space out the sad songs--easily the majority requested--to avoid the "suicidal tendencies" so often prevalent among his request show attendees.
On a brighter note, he recognized two of the four songs in his first handful of requests as his. "That's not too bad," he said, suggesting that a game show theme was needed while he sorted through the request slips, throwing in a few "da-da" syllables to the tune of the "Final Jeopardy!" instrumental theme—to which everyone quickly vocalized, to Thompson's great amusement.
Then again, Thompson can do anything solo or with band to thrill his fans. These two shows covered everything from Rodgers and Hart (an impassioned "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel, which he included in his 2006 box set Songs Pour Down Like Silver) to Lonnie Donegan's 1960 skiffle classic "My Old Man's a Dustman," the Beatles' "I Feel Fine," "Blackbird" and "And Your Bird Can Sing," Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary," the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone."
No surprise that a Leon Russell tune was sought the first night, Russell having died three days earlier. But Thompson couldn't deliver the much-requested "The Masquerade," so he made up his own "Masquerade" on the spot, opining that "Leon would be very impressed." A request for a Joe Jackson song led to a beautiful "It's Different for Girls," even with Thompson stumbling on the lyrics to the chorus.
Of his own songs, "Persuasion," from his 2001 Action Packed album, was requested both nights, as was "Beeswing," from his 1994 album Mirror Blue, and the titletrack of his 1974 album with then wife Linda Thompson, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," which he introduced as "something of a hit in the U.K."—then backtracked: "Not actually a hit, but some resemblance to a hit. All it lacked was sales and airplay!" This elicited a "We love you!" from somebody near the back, perhaps not quite audible to Thompson, as he responded with "Up yours, as well!"
His work with Linda Thompson also yielded "Just the Motion," "Streets of Paradise" and the titletrack of their 1982 album Shoot Out the Lights, providing the best guitar solo of the first night. Guitar highlights of the second night included "Valerie," from 1986 album Daring Adventures, and "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" from Mock Tudor (1999), with a bit of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" thrown in.
Interestingly, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," pretty much Thompson's signature song since recording it for Rumor and Sigh (1991), was performed only the first night. And he expressed great surprise in getting a request for "Long John Silver from his last album Still, released last year: "Still buying CDs? You people are bucking the trend!" He went ahead and played it anyway, for the first time ever solo.
But there were numerous requests for songs from Thompson's earliest Fairport Convention days, much to his approval. These included the traditional "The Deserter" from Liege & Lief (1969), and "Helpless and Slow" and Bob Dylan's "Percy's Song," both from Unhalfbricking (also 1969). Thompson gave heartfelt acknowledgement to legendary Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who died earlier this year, and noted that next year marks the historic band's 50th anniversary.
"Join us in a damp, rainy, windswept field in August!" implored Thompson on the first night, looking ahead to the forthcoming celebration in England. Apropos of nothing, he asked, on the second night, "Wouldn't it be great if you went into the Holland Tunnel and came out in Holland?"
The Holland Tunnel is near City Winery, and it's not at all unlikely that many in the audience are still pondering the question, just as they are surely still marveling once again at Thompson's preternatural musical artistry and driest wit.