Shortly into his lead-off acoustic set at the Lobero Theatre on Wednesday, singer/songwriter/guitar hero Richard Thompson joked, “It’s really fun opening for yourself. It’s cheaper, too.” The audience, which couldn’t get enough Richard Thompson, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Thompson’s acoustic set dipped into all three phases of his notable career, with astounding guitar accompaniment in various tunings.
From his time as a founder of British folk rock pioneers Fairport Convention — my personal favorite of his phases — came “Genesis Hall,” which he introduced as being a protest song about the treatment of squatters. Regarding Fairport Convention, which he left in 1971, he quipped, “They’re still going. They sort of flourished since I left the band.” From his next phase, as half of a duo with his then-wife Linda, was the wonderful “Walking on a Wire” from their landmark last album Shoot Out the Lights.
But the bulk of his acoustic set came from his acclaimed three-decade solo career. The newest was a nautical song in 9/8 time called “Johnny’s Far Away,” with a “shanty chorus” that the audience helped to sing. The highlight, not just of the acoustic set but of the whole show, was his solo song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which is a sad tale of James and Red Molly, and a favorite of fans of motorcycles, redheads, and guitar. I’m sure that more than a few people teared up when he sang James’ deathbed line, “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world / Beats a ’52 Vincent and a redheaded girl.”
After an intermission, Thompson jumped into an electric set with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, two incredible musicians themselves. They started out in power trio mode, with “Stuck on the Treadmill” and “Sally B” from Thompson’s latest album, fittingly entitled Electric.
Other songs on the program from this album included “Salford Sunday” about a drab English industrial town; “Saving the Good Stuff for You,” for which he returned to acoustic guitar but now with the band; and “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” which he introduced by asking, “Do you want to know what a loser sounds like?” This question was a reference to the song being nominated but not winning a 2013 Americana Award for Song of the Year, but although it lost, it’s a tribute to Thompson’s versatility and continued relevance that he as an English songwriter in his 60s was in the running for this award against Americans in their 30s.
Thompson also played a great new song called “Fork in the Road” from a forthcoming EP.
Toward the end of his electric set, Thompson revisited Shoot Out the Lights with the absolutely haunting “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” plus “Wall of Death.” The set ended with the relatively new one “If Love Whispers Your Name.”
For an encore, Thompson treated us to his songs “Dry My Tears and Move On” and “Tear-Stained Letter.” The enthusiastic crowd got him back for a second encore, which consisted of The Band’s “This Wheel's on Fire” and a rousing cover of the old Otis Blackwell song “Daddy Rolling Stone.”
All told, Thompson gave the Lobero audience nearly 2½ hours of stellar songs and phenomenal guitar playing, plus plenty of amusing comments in between. What a great show!
When the Spell is Broken
Walking on a Wire (Richard and Linda Thompson song)
Genesis Hall (Fairport Convention song)
Johnny’s Far Away
Persuasion (Richard Thompson/Tim Finn song)
1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Stuck on the Treadmill
For Shame of Doing Wrong (Richard and Linda Thompson song)
Saving the Good Stuff for You
Al Bowlly’s in Heaven
Fork in the Road
Good Things Happen to Bad People
Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? (Richard and Linda Thompson song)
I’ll Never Give It Up
Wall of Death (Richard and Linda Thompson song)
If Love Whispers Your Name
Dry My Tears and Move On
Tear Stained Letter
This Wheel’s on Fire (The Band song)
Daddy Rolling Stone (Otis Blackwell song)
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.