Richard Thompson performs "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"
Whatever solo acoustic show a very funny Richard Thompson might have planned Monday night for City Winery, after taking a look at the packed room of “winerists” (“I don’t want to call you ‘winos’!”) and ascertaining the “true age” of attendees, he opted for a 1960s and ‘70s “retrospective show,” he said, rather than test their tolerance for his newer, presumably not-yet-written and therefore unheard “hip-hop” material.
As promised, then, much of the evening’s “magic carpet of song” was lifted from his initial fame in England’s legendary Fairport Convention—“a band of no great significance,” he grossly understated, noting, “We [merely] invented folk-rock, [or] a strain of folk-rock—like ebola!”
For sure, Fairport’s music was infectious—in the best possible way—and looking back 50 years now, fortifying. Among that group’s gems appropriately performed at City Winery was the much-covered “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” forever associated with late singer Sandy Denny, whose recording with Fairport is 50 years old exactly. Thompson humbly hoped that his version would send everyone to YouTube as soon as they got home to hear Denny’s, but the consensus among longtime fans was that somehow, nearing 70 (he’s celebrating his birthday with a Sept. 30 sold-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall), he himself has never sung better, let alone played better.
It being a solo acoustic show, he had only one guitar, and as always, cranked out so much superb sound out of it that ordinary racks of show guitars and a tech scurrying back and forth with replacements would have been superfluous. Fast, slow, single notes or strums, his trademark play was always breathtaking yet purposeful, and on “She Moves Through the Fair,” the traditional Irish song recorded on Fairport’s 1969 second album What We Did on Our Holidays, he slapped his guitar’s body in between runs, as if it were an Irish bhodran frame drum.
Other Fairport songs in the set included “Meet on the Ledge,” originally an underperforming single from 1968 (also from Holidays) that became the band’s annual Cropredy Festival closer. But as he had indicated at the start, some “fantastic new songs” would be sprinkled throughout the evening, together with concert staples from his prolific post-Fairport career.
These included a beautiful “Beeswing,” and “Tear Stained Letter”--for which Thompson sought audience assistance, since he offered it at the point in the show “when the band usually comes out.” So he coached the room’s middle section in singing the “Whoa, whoa, lord, lord…” chorus, the bar area in doing “the saxophone part” that follows, and the “expensive section” in percussive foot-stomping or thigh-slapping—cautioning them, though, to make sure they only slapped their own thighs. It was to this third section, by the way, that he surreptitiously grimaced his displeasure at the performance of the saxophonists.
From his latest album 13 Rivers he rendered “The Storm Won’t Come” and “The Rattle Within,” and of course, he delivered what has become required: his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh’s masterpiece “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” as ever, a master class in constructing a guitar solo from the tiniest blocks into a monumental edifice. Another standout was new song “Crocodile Tears,” “a hybrid,” he said, of “your fine country-and-western music mixed with street gang music in Glasgow” that replaces “bonhomie with malevolence and sarcasm.”
Closing with Rumor and Sigh’s “I Feel So Good” and “Dimming of the Day” (from his 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver with fellow former Fairport member and ex-wife Linda Thompson), he encored with a pair of other Richard/Linda-era songs (“I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight” and “Wheel of Death”) as well as “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” from Still (2015), and “My Enemy,” from Electric (2013). English singer-songwriter and author (Somebody’s Daughter--A Moving Journey of Discovery, Recovery and Adoption) Zara Phillips supplied perfect backup vocals for the encores.
It should be noted, by the way, that Thompson was right in gearing the show to those of a certain older age, as many, if not all in the audience, were so well versed in even the earliest phases of his extended output. “Do me a favor,” he pleaded of them at one point. “Stay alive!”