Thompson delights a sold-out audience

Tuesday, October 28
GREAT BARRINGTON — Some musicians' careers seem to tell a story, the aggregate of their albums and tours following an internal rhythm and composing a sort of loose narrative. Then there's Richard Thompson. Try plotting the disparate points of his career timeline onto graph paper and making any sense of it.

He's a sardonic lone wolf best remembered commercially as half of a husband-and-wife duo. He's canonized by Rolling Stone as one of the 20 greatest rock and roll guitarists ever, and prone to go on solo, acoustic tours. He spawned England's version of folk rock in the late 1960s, and since then has managed to accumulate the dust of 'legend' status upon his trademark black beret, but start trying to compile his "classic" songs in order of importance and you'd do well to start in the '90s.

At the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center this weekend, Thompson delivered a potent set designed to delight the diehards, visiting the outlying points of his meandering catalog but also birthing fresh, fiery takes on a cluster of (relative) greatest hits. It was a set that was musically tight but structurally loose; Thompson was charming and dark, funny and haunting. In all, it was something like a master class in solo performance, and it thoroughly delighted a sold-out house apparently loaded with longtime fans.

  • The night opened with a cluster of songs that dove immediately into Thompson's dark psyche. "I Feel So Good," from 1991 album "Rumor and Sigh," was crisp and crackling in its declaration of teenaged criminal delinquency. Its premonitions of sexual violence were wrapped in a driving, rock and roll rhythm whose intensity far outstripped (with one acoustic guitar) the full band, recorded version.

    From there, though, the tempo dropped and the view into Thompson's smoky prism of damaged yearning was delivered full-on, cresting with the ironic disturbia of "Hope You Like the New Me" ("I stole your soul when you weren't looking/it suits me more than it ever suited you") and the Iraq lament, "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," complete with vultures pecking at corpses and desperate foxhole religion.

    The deliberate pacing built up to a piercing romp through 1999 rocker "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)," complete with a spirited call-and-response effect on the chorus and Thompson's most adventurous guitar solo of the night.

    The set really found its legs here, continuing with a game delivery of the title track from the classic Richard and Linda Thompson album from 1974, "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight," and a thunderous, ovation-prodding ride through the dark motorcycle mythos of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."

  • Thompson invited audience requests late in the show, and from that process we got the bittersweet lilt of "Beeswing" and a fun but essentially lightweight cover of 1960s popsters The Left Banke's "She May Call You Up Tonight."

    In other artists' hands these moments may have come off loose or knocked the momentum sideways. Thompson's full commitment to the material, assured touch on the guitar and impassioned vocals lent a full weight to the proceedings, even when the between-song banter devolved into a nitpicking debate with audience members over Bob Dylan's output of the early '70s.

  • The encore included the title track from "Shoot Out the Lights," the 1982 album with Linda that's probably most recognizable to the casual fan. But Thompson closed the show with "Heart Needs A Home," a bonus track added to CD editions of a more obscure, older album, out of print in the United States and available only as an import.

    Set list trainspotters this night tallied songs from at least a dozen different studio albums spanning four decades, plus a couple of uncollected live nuggets. Yet it all seemed focused, unified under the banner of Thompson's acerbic, dagger-wielding wit and prodigious skills on guitar.

    A mix and match of odds and sods perhaps, but in this intimate (and frequently intense) context it felt like part of one piece — a formidable body of work, even if not a narrative.


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