IN TUNE: During the mesmerizing middle break of his magnificent “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” at Town Hall in Manhattan last night, I finally realized what it is about Richard Thompson that makes us crave the show-stopping masterpiece every time:
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It’s a Mona Lisa, a Sistine Chapel, a Mass in B Minor. It’s like seeing the Northern Lights, a Key West sunset or your loved one’s smile.
Richard Thompson, O.B.E., is more than a dazzling guitarist and a witty showman: He may well be the greatest folk singer-songwriter of our time.
Well into his fifth decade of writing and performing, Thompson, 62, continues to plumb the depths of guilt, regret, and anger that often sink relationships.
“The measure of any song is whether you’ve told the truth,” he once told me. “Your own experience is a starting point for what basically is fiction, and you develop a certain skill in doing that convincingly. The better writer you are, the deeper you go…. The idea is to touch people’s hearts somehow.”
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Thompson’s best-known pieces certainly do that. It’s both a skill and a gift, really, that he presents them, time and again, without losing a shred of depth, vitality or beauty.
“Persuasion” was an exquisite timepiece, heartfelt and mournful as ever. “Valerie,” “I Feel So Good” and “Crawl Back” had the usual snap, crackle and pop. “Uninhabited Man” was typically tragic – and equally excellent. It seemed everyone sang along to the Celtic stomp “Johnny’s Far Away.”
There was also a life-affirming, near gospel-styled “Wall of Death” and the tried-and-true opener, “She Twists the Knife Again.” Obliging the evening-long calls from the crowd, Thompson drew cheers — and tears — with the lovely “Beeswing.”
He also pulled something of a surprise:
Thompson told the audience he’s been playing a set of songs each night from one of his 17 albums (“the ones that I’m least ashamed of, anyway”), a variation on the full-album concerts performed by, among others, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen.
Then, from a beret placed on his stool, he pulled a piece of paper and read the album title to himself. Thompson chucked it and reached in again.
“Shoot Out the Lights”(!)
“The fix is in!” I shouted. Thompson laughed and nodded his head.
A year short of three decades old, “Shoot Out the Lights” is a hauntingly powerful, heart-scraping gem Thompson produced with his then-wife, Linda, smack dab in the middle of their divorce.
After beginning with the title track, Thompson played a propulsive version of “Backstreet Slide” before silencing the room with “Just the Motion,” a song that can raise the goosebumps even if you don’t know the back story.
What makes Thompson unique is his playing: His extremely sophisticated style of picking often relies on triplets, creating an aural impression that you’re hearing two guitarists. The blues great Robert Johnson is credited with being the style’s pioneer, and both Eric Clapton and Keith Richards said they rehearsed for years trying to get the same sound.
For all of Clapton’s gifts, Thompson could easily be considered his equal – at the very least.
Thompson is also extremely charming, with a wry, almost impish, sense of humor. In fact, as thousands of “Occupiers” were jamming Times Square just down the street, the bearded bard was raising roars of laughter from more than 1,500 fans with last year’s “The Money Shuffle,” a song told from the standpoint of a hedge fund manager:
“We never pimp and we don’t hustle
If you’ll just bend over a little
I think you’ll feel my financial muscle
Spread it wide, wide as you can
To get the full benefit of my plan….
I hear the sound of distant thunder
AIG and Lehmans going under
Will I get my bonus
He also paid tribute to the unfairly underrated Sandy Denny, his former bandmate in Fairport Convention. Innovative and influential, Fairport was arguably the greatest folk-rock band ever. The late Denny, as Thompson reminded the audience, was as responsible for that as anyone in the group.
“If my singing leads you to her on Amazon or You Tube,” he said, “my job will have be done.”
He’s right. You Tube has some marvelous videos. Still, his version of her “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was spot-on, another tear-jerker.
“It’s never been easy. It’s always a struggle,” Thompson told me of the introspective approach. “But it’s one that I undertake willingly because I enjoy so much of the process.
“I don’t overpsychologize. If it’s cathartic in any way, that’s just incidental.”
Thompson also reveres those who have come before. Dipping into his “1,000 Years of Popular Music,” he gave the crowd a treat for his third and final encore: The Who’s “Substitute,” as self-deprecating and ironic a pop tune as ever.
It was fitting, really.
For all his wisdom, Richard Thompson, O.B.E., still holds fast to a little-boy impetuosity that revels in life’s exquisite complexities.
You could see it in his smile.
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