Richard Thompson - Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Thu 28 Feb 2013
Inventive power trio show from unique and resourceful guitarist and songwriter
Richard Thompson and Eric Clapton. Two bearded Englishmen of a certain age, born within 30 miles and four years of each other, along what would one day become the south-western course of the M25, each of them devoted in their respective ways to certain vintages of rural folkway, each of them earning early fame as guitar wizards in respected bands (Fairport Convention and Cream, if you’re wondering), each of them maintaining said fame by establishing solo careers around playing the guitar, writing songs and singing them. And yet Thompson, unlike Clapton, attracts a certain sort of fan that just won't listen to anything Clapton has done since about 1974.
We all know why Eric Clapton's later music is largely absent from the hard drives of your average hipster, whereas respect for Richard Thompson is and has always been pretty much a shibboleth for serious music fans. It’s the writing. Unlike Clapton, Thompson, especially during his extraordinary 1970s collaboration with first wife Linda, quickly matured into the greatest songwriter of his generation; but the reason he’s less rich and famous is that his driving obsessions as a writer are not love and loneliness, but guilt, regret, anger, intra-relationship cruelty, the chaos of the world, the longing for reconciliation with the deity, and lurid tales of murder. It’s not exactly Wonderful Tonight. Thompson's artistic personality is so strong that even when he covered Britney Spears' Oops … I Did It Again, it sounded like one of his own songs. (It didn’t hurt that Max Martin is a bit of a genius.) Clapton’s sense of musical history goes back no further than 1930s Mississippi, but Thompson can gleefully draw on a thousand years of popular music, as he has unforgettably demonstrated.
Yes, Thompson is the anti-Clapton. He's not primarily interested in making you cry. He wants to tell you a story, spook you, amuse you, maybe even teach you a lesson. As a writer, he has what George Orwell claimed as his own great strength: 'a power of facing unpleasant facts'. Which is maybe why, at 63, he's touring with a power trio and playing clanging new songs and amped-up versions of old ones. Of all his folk-rock peers, he's the only one that the punks liked too. When the first song on your first solo album has a chorus that goes 'Live in fear/live in fear/live in fear/live in fear', it’s understandable.
Support act Robert Ellis was a lanky and charming young Texan with improbable guitar skills, who apologised in advance for his imitation of a Scottish accent and then admitted that his Scottish tour manager had advised him not to try it onstage. Ellis' debut album Photographs reveals him as a deft maker of character studies, from 'Two Cans of Paint' - featuring a couplet as disarming as 'With you standing in the window / unpacking a Nintendo' -- to 'No Fun', a neat examination of redneck misogyny. The Usher Hall acoustics swallowed much of the subtlety in Ellis' lyrics, so that it was sometimes hard to tell when he was being ironic and when he wasn’t, but the fame he deserves will no doubt lead him to venues with better PAs. His last song hit hardest, the chilling 'Sing Along', a caustic denunciation of his own fire-and-brimstone Christian upbringing, and like all classic songs it felt like you’d known it forever even though you know you can't have.
The Thompson trio laid its cards on the table with the garage-y attack of 'Stuck in the Treadmill', a song from the new album Electric. It soon became clear that this was not going to be a night of Richard Thompson: intimate balladeer. The man had come to play guitar, and that's what he did. 'My Enemy', another new song, had an extended and anguished solo that strayed into severely abstract territory, with Thompson's playing sometimes approaching Sonny Sharrock and at other times making it clear why Rob Young's history of English folk-rock Electric Eden has an approving front-cover quote from Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo.
RT is of course the guitar soloist for people who don't normally like guitar solos. It's got something to do with his technique, a country-derived combination of flatpicking and fingerpicking which enables him to leap across strings quicker than those who just use a plectrum, and also to give each note an added harmonic twist by playing a more-or-less related note as extra flavour above or below. It's also about that most elusive thing, tone: phrases like 'a swan being blowtorched to death' or 'a songbird gargling mercury' are hapless gestures in the direction of his extraordinary timbral combination of ecstatic wail and metallic squawk. Finally, there’s his sheer resourcefulness as a musician. All those years studying Django and traditional reels and Arabic music have fused into something powerfully direct, and yet one of the best things about this gig was the spectacle of Thompson wrestling with his own facility, trying to find new ways of playing what he wanted to play. When Neil Young in electric mode plays those glorious, ham-fisted, stuttery solos, part of their greatness has to do with their sheer predictability, whereas with Thompson it's impossible to tell what he's going to play next.
The warmest reception came for older songs. 'For Shame Of Doing Wrong', originally a moody and reflective mid-tempo country song, became something which pounded with the anguish of a man repeatedly banging his head against a brick wall. Al Bowlly's 'In Heaven' was a bitter, jazzy slouch, featuring a wonderfully sensitive drum solo from Michael Jerome, in which he put down his brushes and laid about the kit with his bare hands. Jerome’s combination of full-on rock power and sheer delicacy was an absolute treat, in general; Fellow RT Fan, who accompanied me to the gig and who is not normally a fan of drummers, commented ‘He’s so elegant!’ Bass player Taras Prodaniuk was beautifully responsive during quiet bits and if his solos occasionally had a certain thing of Hey-I-can-play-fast-too, he provided a rock-solid foundation.
If there was anything about this concert that was less than great, it was a certain sameness of approach. RT's songs are already so non-ingratiating that he hardly needs to play everything loud and hard to make the point, and although new song 'Saving the Good Stuff for You' came as a welcome change of direction towards being warm and cuddly and stuff like that, the reason it worked had chiefly to do with its context, because it’s not by Thompson’s standards an especially convincing song in itself.
By way of encore, RT jokily referred to his own power trio set-up and proceeded to do a remarkably idiomatic version of Jimi Hendrix's version of 'Hey Joe'. Given the content of that song, and the fact that a couple of songs previously he’d cheerfully observed that 'it's not really entertainment until there's a murder ballad', this managed the remarkable feat of making Hendrix sound like Thompson, instead of the other way around -- although when he’d been rewarded with especially warm applause, he couldn’t resist snarking ‘Oh, you like Hendrix songs, then.’ It took a frenetic encore of 'Tear-Stained Letter' to bring a rather staid Edinburgh audience to its feet. As a demonstration of an artist being true to his muse, it was outstanding; as a demonstration of the conflict between what the artist wanted to do (jazzed-up folk-punk) and what most of the audience looked like it was hoping to get (The Richard Thompson Songbook), it was intriguing. Richard Thompson at 63 is still the same ornery sod that he was at 23. There’s definitely something admirable about that. I’m just not sure what it is.