I didn’t realize how much I missed it.
I mean, sure, I did previously feel a sense of loss regarding more than four months of not going to concerts — or plays, or cultural events of any kind. But it didn’t really hit me in a visceral, almost overpowering way until I stepped onto the football field of Woodbridge High School, July 25.
It was a cool, dry night — a big relief from the heat and humidity we’ve been living through, lately — and a slight but very welcome breeze washed over the field. Some 500 people were spread around the grass, in clusters of two or three or four, safely distant from other groups. They wore masks throughout the evening, or at least when they were leaving their allotted zone to visit, say, the ice cream truck.
On the stage, two microphones were set up for Richard Thompson — who performed, mostly, solo, backing himself on acoustic guitar — and Zara Phillips, who joined him on backing vocals for the last third of the concert.
As it does every summer, Woodbridge has been presenting free concerts since July 6, and will continue doing so through mid-September; ultimately there will be 50 of them. Thompson, a staggeringly talented singer-songwriter and guitarist since his days with pioneering British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in the ’60s, was not on the initial schedule. But he’s living in Montclair now, and backed Phillips during her July 15 set at Woodbridge. When Amy Helm had to cancel her July 22 appearance, he graciously agreed to sub; when it rained on July 22, the show was moved to July 25.
Early in his hour-and-45-minute performance, Thompson called it a “rare treat” to be on a stage, in front of people. He mentioned that he hadn’t performed for a live audience since February and has no plans to do so again until April (and even that might be postponed, he glumly added). He also joked that his part-time job in the Purell factory was going well.
He hasn’t been musically dormant since March, presenting a series of Facebook Live concerts; releasing a solid six-song digital EP of new songs, Bloody Noses; finishing production on an album for Phillips, Meditation and KitKats; and even recording a song with Phillips for NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series, a new version of his classic ballad, “A Heart Needs a Home.”
But nothing, of course, beats the experience of an actual concert, and Thompson was in very good form in Woodbridge, playing his complex guitar riffs with no sign of rust (and taking his solo for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” into surprising, exploratory territory), singing with power and emotion, and engaging the audience with sometimes heartfelt, sometimes amusing comments between songs.
Before “Keep Your Distance,” he said that during a pandemic, this song is “so appropriate, it’s almost embarrassing to play it.” And before “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” — an elegant ballad that was written and sung by the late Sandy Denny in Fairport Convention, and has become something of a standard since then — he said that since the song is a meditation on the passage of time, it’s “appropriate for old codgers like me — and now that I look around, you.”
The sound was clear and crisp throughout the evening, allowing every note to be heard.
Like “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” another song in the setlist, “Genesis Hall,” goes back to Thompson’s Fairport Convention days. A tale of police brutality and the inevitability of revolution, it seemed particularly well suited to the moment in history we’re now living through.
Thompson reached into the somewhat distant past at other times, too, but didn’t stint on recent material, performing two songs from Bloody Noses and two from his 2018 album 13 Rivers, and closing with the unrecorded rocker “When the Saints Rise Out of Their Graves.” (Now 71, Thompson remains sharper, musically, and more prolific as a songwriter than virtually all of his peers.)
There was incredible amount of range in a show that featured, mostly, just one performer with an acoustic guitar. Thompson sounded nasty on “Crocodile Tears,” sweet on “The Ghost of You Walks,” nostalgic on the old-timey “They Tore the Hippodrome Down” and vulnerable on “Persuasion.” Though he is sometimes a reserved performer, he brought dramatic flourishes to certain numbers, including “Valerie” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” And Phillips added some rich textures to the mix by singing on seven of the night’s last eight songs, including classics such as “Wall of Death” and “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve never concluded a concert review with thank yous before, but it seems appropriate to say, to Richard Thompson and Zara Phillips … to concert promoter Bill Brandenburg, who made the show happen … to Woodbridge mayor John E. McCormac and the city itself, which produces New Jersey’s most extensive series of free summertime concerts every year … thank you. I needed that.
To see what’s coming up in Woodbridge later this summer, visit woodbridgeartsnj.org.
For more on Thompson, visit richardthompson-music.com.
For more on Phillips, visit zaraphillips.net.
Here is the show’s setlist and, below it, some videos.
“If I Could Live My Life Again”
“The Ghost of You Walks”
“From Galway to Graceland”
“Walking the Long Miles Home”
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
“They Tore the Hippodrome Down”
“Keep Your Distance”
“Wall of Death” (with Zara Phillips)
“The Storm Won’t Come” (with Zara Phillips)
“Dry My Tears and Move On” (with Zara Phillips)
“The Rattle Within” (with Zara Phillips)
“The Fortress” (with Zara Phillips)
“I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” (with Zara Phillips)
“When the Saints Rise Out of Their Graves” (with Zara Philips)
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