As part of Richard Thompson’s latest outing on his 13 Rivers tour, running through the autumn, he came to the Cambridge Corn Exchange to raise the spirits of his loyal contingent at the dimming of a Tuesday in late October. Support came from Joan Shelley (actually a duo), whose sublime half-hour set of delicate songs came across well.
And so, to the main man… Ambling onto the stage with his electric ‘trio’ in tow, Thompson was keen to set out his stall with plenty of new material as four of the first five songs came from the new album. So far, so solid and so tight. Of the new material, Thompson has remarked that “the songs are a surprise in a good way”, and that they came as “a surprise in a dark time. You find deeper meaning in the best records as time goes on. The reward comes later.” Don’t we just know it, Mr Thompson. And there could well be some ‘future classics’ here.
As Thompson had promised earlier, he was ready to play some of those ‘timeless classics’, starting with the rarely-performed Fairport Convention song, ‘Tale In Hard Time’. His self-deprecatory introduction suggested that he wasn’t sure if it would work in a live setting, but it turned out to be a highlight, particularly as it has never appeared in any of Thompson’s past live sets. As if to ram the point home, the classics kept on coming – and we weren’t disappointed. ‘Meet On The Ledge’, the rousing ‘Wall Of Death’ and ‘Dimming of the Day’ all got a deserved airing, as well as the finger picking boy-meets-girl masterpiece that could well be his pièce de résistance: ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’.
Hearing songs like ‘Tale In Hard Time’, ‘Put It There Pal’ and the beatific-to-heartbreaking story of ‘Beeswing’ live for the first time elevated tonight’s show above his more recent Cambridge appearances for this listener. That’s the beauty of Thompson’s songs: they are timeless classics that you can discover 10, 20 or 50 years after they were first released. They still have the power to charm and to electrify in equal measure.
Thompson is renowned for his earworm melodies that thinly veil some of the most barbed and malicious lyrics ever put to song. He’s lost none of his touch, as ably demonstrated by the aforementioned, ‘Put It There Pal’, from his 1996 album You? Me? Us?
Try this for size:
I know you mean well, call me a sentimental fool
I know sometimes you’ve got to be kind to be cruel
When you pat me on the back, that was quite some slap
That kind of compliment, it could kill a chap
It’s performed with all the venom, spite and vitriol that an artist one third of his age would struggle to muster. The guitar playing is striking, at times atonal, and brutal against a backdrop as tight and emphatic as anything I’ve heard. Thompson’s solos can be unsettling and discordant, like holding up a mirror to some of the unsavoury characters and themes that run through his songs. Hats off to the brilliant rhythm section comprising Michael Jerome on drums and Taras Prodaniuk on bass. Meanwhile, Thompson was making one guitar sound like two or three.
On ‘Guitar Heroes’ (from the Jeff Tweedy produced album Still), Thompson aired his past and present influences, tipping his beret to the likes of Chuck Berry, Hank Marvin, Django Reinhardt and other esteemed company. This he did with consummate ease, humour and virtuosity. Well, he made it look easy anyway. And if there’s one song that will tell you the whys and wherefores of what Thompson does, then surely this is the one.
Some 21 songs in it was clear that this was indeed some much needed tonic in hard (or confusing) times for us all. Thompson’s been making an incalculable contribution to music for 50 years, but he’s probably still going to be looking for a musical solution ‘til he gets to that final chord. Tonight, that final chord was courtesy of The Sorrows’ 1965 hit, ‘Take A Heart’.
If you’re already a fan you may still think of him as that ‘bebop, twang-headed rock and roll fool’, but you can bet your life that the spirit of Richard Thompson will always be alive and kicking – even at the dimming of the day.
Words from Chris Williams