At a time when too many celebrated musicians of the rock ‘n’ roll heyday seem content to become museum pieces, Richard Thompson is refreshingly provocative and inventive.
At 70, he still releases new music every couple of years. He tours — either with a band or as a solo act — on a fairly regular basis. Most of all, he is musically mischievous, pushing himself to craft songs with lasting images and memorable riffs that not only challenge the listener but also his own talents as one of the most criminally overlooked composers and guitarists the genre has ever produced.
All of this was on display May 11 at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, where Thompson — one of the founding members of the seminal English folk-rock group, Fairport Convention — took a solo turn. (Earlier in the day, in a separate event, the Montclair Film Festival screened the documentary, “A Winding Road: A Ramble With Richard Thompson.”) For more than two hours, he serenaded an adoring crowd with clever songs about forlorn losers, desperate lovers, drunkards and fatalistic misfits.
Blessed with unusual physical dexterity — he has lightning-quick fingers — and a keen wit, Thompson knows how to pace a show and keep an audience off balance, but always wanting more.
He began on a somber note, though, with “Gethsemane,” a sort of parable about an idyllic childhood that is eventually eclipsed by the disillusionment that comes with living a hard, embittered life. Then there was the sobering “The Ghost of You Walks” which, as the title indicates, is about love lost. This one-two punch was an austere beginning to the concert.
But then Thompson segued into one his crowd-pleasers, an upbeat song called “Valerie” that took off like a rocket and featured neo-rockabilly riffs and his patented percussive guitar playing. Seizing on the momentum, he then showed his playful, if droll, side with “Crocodile Tears,” which could win an award for snarkiest breakup song by likening a former lover to a prowling reptile: “Crocodiles do it much better/They’re much more humane and forgiving/Their victims are dead in a minute, it’s said/While yours have to carry on living.”
The rest of the night, he rocked back and forth between newer and older numbers. Among the latest were three dark-hewn gems off his 2018 album, 13 Rivers. Thompson smartly chose to play songs with the most memorable hooks, notably “The Rattle Within,” which, like so many of his compositions, explores the demons inside us (or at least him).
Some of the oldest tunes were originally recorded with his former wife, Linda Thompson. There were marvelous versions of “Dimming of the Day” and “Where the Drunkards Roll,” both of which originally featured her on lead vocals, as well as “Wall of Death,” from arguably their best album, 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights.
And there was an unspoken poignant moment, as well. This happened to be 50 years to the day when a van carrying a few members of the original Fairport Convention and some friends had a terrible highway accident in England, killing their drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson’s girlfriend.
Thompson tweeted about this earlier in the day, but did not mention anything at the show. But he did play two songs from a 1969 album that was later released with a different lineup of the band, which by then included Sandy Denny. Nodding generally to the passage of time, he sang her oft-covered masterpiece, “Who Knows Where the Times Goes?” Of course, Thompson has sung this many times before, but it was hard to avoid thinking that the past was, indeed, on his mind at that moment.
No Thompson concert is complete, though, without “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” an odd love song about a brash, young criminal who knows his time is short, and so bequeaths his prized motorcycle to a beautiful, red-headed girl named Molly. Beyond tugging at the heartstrings, the song features some of Thompson’s most dazzling guitar work and has to be experienced to be believed. A YouTube clip doesn’t do this justice.
And then he orchestrated a singalong. With a twinkle in his eye, he instructed one part of the audience to sing the chorus of infectious jig called “Tear-Stained Letter,” while asking another section of the crowd to sing the saxophone part, as if that comes easily. Yet another part of the audience was told to play percussion on their seats or legs or whatever was near them. But that came with a warning: “Slapping the person to your right,” he cautioned, “could bring about some interesting relationships.”
Near the end of the show, Thompson brought out singer-songwriter and author Zara Phillips to close the night with a pair of songs about the vagaries of life. First, they sang “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” which is about simple yearnings and was originally sung by Linda Thompson. He closed the night with “My Enemy,” from his 2013 album Electric, which ostensibly chronicles the push and pull between old rivals but is really about the limitations of ongoing relationships.
Ardent Richard Thompson fans likely knew most of the lyrics and happily enjoyed the opportunity to once again digest the nuances in the meanings. But what makes his shows special is how easy it is for newcomers to appreciate the unexpected mix of cerebral and wistful themes. And then there’s that guitar wizardry.
Half a century after his emergence, Thompson remains a creative force worth seeing.
For more on Thompson, visit richardthompson-music.com.
Click here to read NJArts.net’s recent interview with Thompson.
Thompson performs at the Ocean City Music Pier, with Joan Osborne opening, June 25 at 7 p.m.. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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