Richard Thompson performs "When the Spell is Broken"
“You’re clapping now…,” said Richard Thompson Friday night (Feb. 7) after taking the Symphony Space stage to thunderous applause from a full house (the first of two nights at the Upper West Side Manhattan venue), all in suspense for the latest manifestation of his All Requests Live! solo concert program.
Thompson boldly does these things periodically, in between straight solo and band shows, and while it’s an entirely different format, it’s no less enthralling.
The deal here is that he gets audience requests, written out on thin strips of paper and dumped into a basket, before he begins. He grabs a handful at a time, culls through them silently, letting his eyes twinkle or mouth frown depending on his reaction to the request. Some he tosses to the floor, others he studies intently, nodding, grimacing, muttering audibly to himself before settling on an acceptable entry; as he told friends afterward, it’s an honest, spontaneous show, in that he’ll tackle just about everything thrown at him.
Case in point: Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” (“as if I know a song by Jefferson Airplane!”), one of several requests requiring a dutiful assistant to print out a lyric sheet. While his rendition was somewhat tentative, he “put on my best Jorma” (Kaukonen, the Airplane’s great guitarist) and was indeed more than passable.
Then again, Jefferson Airplane had decided folk-rock roots, same as Thompson with his legendary British folk band Fairport Convention. To be sure, there were fulfilled requests for Fairport material (1968 single “Meet on the Ledge,”—categorized by Thompson, who wrote it at 18, as “a song of idealism and hope that we all need these days”), also gems from his post-Fairport period with then wife Linda Thompson (“When I Get to the Border,” “A Heart Needs a Home,” “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” and “Walking on a Wire”—especially noteworthy here for its sheets of Thompson guitar sound).
Most of the requests, though, were for solo era songs, his best-loved one, the tragic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (from 1991 album Rumor and Sigh), picked from the basket at the beginning and sung second (after that album’s “Read About Love”). It was embellished by his revelation that one of the rare motorcycle models that is the song’s subject had sold at auction for $930,000: “I like to think I had something to do with it!” he understated, no doubt accurately.
While Thompson didn’t retreat from any request, he did state outright that he’d arrange them so as not to perform too many “wrist-slashers” in a row.
“One of my depressing songs is not bad—but three can be terminal!” he explained, though he expressed annoyance that “people always request the heavy songs,” maybe because, like he demonstrated on “When the Spell is Broken,” they have such spellbinding guitar parts.
But he took perverse pride in another of the heavier requests, “The Poor Ditching Boy” from first solo album Henry the Human Fly, which relates a young man’s bitter lament about a treacherous gal. The album, he said, was cited in a Warner Bros. in-house rag as its worst-selling ever.
In addition, to “Somebody to Love,” Thompson gamely fielded a few other submissions clearly outside his comfort zone. Noting that everybody “of a certain age” had parents whose music collections comprised Broadway musical cast albums like Kismet, Oklahoma, Camelot and The King and I, he valiantly toyed with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, later suggesting that his singing evoked both Mitzi Gaynor’s in the 1958 film version and Mary Martin’s in the original 1949 Broadway hit.
For this he definitely needed lyrics, though not so with “Oops!... I Did It Again,” as Britney Spears’ smash had been the most recent song of his 1000 Years of Popular Music retrospective shows culminating in a 2003 live album. Structurally, he noted, it was very similar to 16th century Italian dance music.
Thompson also needed lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which someone had the gall to request. But even then he skipped the first part and went to “Mama, just killed a man....,” then led an unsettling percentage of the crowd in the operatic “Galileo” segment.
“It was almost like the record, wasn’t it?” he asked after, rhetorically. But he thankfully declined a shout-out for Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon,” though he did make up a brief song with the same title on the spot.
Backup singer Zara Phillips joined Thompson on encores “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and “Wall of Death,” both from his records with Linda Thompson. The final encore was another one of his solo faves, “Tear-Stained Letter,” for which he divided the house into parts to accompany him.
He even managed to get one part to vocally approximate the saxophone break after each chorus.