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Review: Richard Thompson in Toronto, July 6, 2008


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by Marc Olszewski

The Bermuda Triangle is, factually, a Northwest region of the Atlantic Ocean where it is said various sea vessels and aircraft have disappeared for no apparent reason. Time will surely reveal that these “mysteries†are less paranormal than simply unverified but no doubt the conspiracy theories will continue unabated.

It’s an apt metaphor, then, for the career of Richard Thompson, a musician’s musician, beloved by many around the world but who has steadfastly remained a true “cult†figure to thousands of fans around the world, much to their equal parts frustration and delight. To Thompson fans, such as myself, justifying his lack of even marginal mainstream success over a 40 year career becomes like trying to reveal the “mysteries†of the Bermuda Triangle. It becomes not so much a single explanation than a confluence of reasons, each compounding the other.

He left an important, semi-successful band on the verge of breaking out (Fairport Convention) to launch a solo career with an album in which he dressed like a giant fly on the cover, the single worst selling album in Island Record’s history for many years. He then enlisted his soon to be wife, Linda Peters (to be Linda Thompson) – surely possessed with one of the sweetest voices ever to grace my ears – and created a masterpiece (1974’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonightâ€) before withdrawing almost completely from the public eye and joining an Islamic Sufi commune, releasing only mysterious records replete with metaphysical imagery and heady Sufi-influenced songs. Career be damned!

Crawling out of the swamps of religious solitude, the Thompson's geared towards their most succesful album, 1982’s “Shoot Out The Lightsâ€, lauded by critics and fans alike. The couple fell apart completely, putting paid to their partnership – career be damned! Moving to the US, Richard Thompson paradoxically became almost more painfully British than ever, releasing a slew of excellent albums on Capitol Records that sold a combined total of, oh, maybe 198 copies before being invited to join the indie ranks in the late 1990’s. Career be damned!

Not that any of this was a problem to the 500 or so people who attended Thompson’ solo acoustic performance at Toronto’s Music Hall on Sunday night. For they knew that Thompson’s confounding twists and turns have paid dividends with a rich catalogue of songs, some of which will surely take their place in the British traditional folk music canon just as Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Hunter/Garcia have contributed to the US folk music canon. Alone, with only one acoustic guitar at hand, he performed a showcase of musical discipline and dexterity set to keen, wry songs of love, life, loss and all points in between. That he should be so unassuming, even awkward, only added to the wonder.

The audience leaned in, not a pin drop to be heard, as Thompson delivered a hair-raising performance of his late colleague Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?â€. They sang along with the glum, dark chorus of “Down Where The Drunkards Roll†as though it was a hootenanny crossed with a wake. Unreleased gems like “Hots For The Smarts†broke the ice with Thompson delivering sophisticated, witty line after line, a level of songwriting joined in ranks by the likes of Elvis Costello and Randy Newman. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning†– perhaps now his signature tune – seemed as fresh as it was in 1991, a dismaying modern ballad joining the UK tradition with American concerns, a perfect picture painted in four verses and five minutes. “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me†reminded one and all that folk music has a topical element, and that outside the walls of this fine theatre, war rages in the Middle East and those brave soldiers can often find themselves alone, hated, scared.

All of which would have been remarkable in and of itself but the icing on the cake is that Richard Thompson is undoubtedly one of the greatest guitar players of his generation. On song after song – particularly “Valerie†and “Crawl Back†– he indulged himself and the audience with the kind of off the cuff phrases and lines that make other guitar players want to pull their own fingers off. Always in service to the song, his acoustic guitar playing joined the lines between ancient bagpipe reels and jigs, Duke Ellington, cajun music and Jimmy Page, all in single 45 second solos. His technique was phenomenal, a cross between flat picking with his thumb and index finger and intricate finger picking with his remaining digits, not a beat was missed, not a note placed wrong. This wasn’t just showmanship on display, it was a musical lesson for any who wished to learn.

This is not to say the show didn’t take a few ups and downs. Solo acoustic-wise, songs like “Walking On a Wire†and “She Twists The Knife Again†missed the mark slightly as Thompson seemed content to mimic the original full band versions rather than reinterpret them more successfully to solo arrangements. And while the setlist may seem like a message from Mars (or the Bermuda Triangle, perhaps) to casual fans, he stuck surprisingly to the more obvious, uh, “hits†from his repertoire, a little disconcerting from a man who estimated he has written 400 to 500 songs.

But, like careers, petty criticisms be damned! The truth is, those fans who have known that Richard Thompson is The Real Deal may remain frustrated by his career perpetually being on the sidelines of popular music but they delight in being part of the secret society that gathers music lovers from all around the world in excellent songs and musicianship. Perhaps there’s a musical equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle but if there is, Richard Thompson proved on Sunday night he’s a survivor and thriving because of it.

Richard Thompson

The Music Hall, Toronto, ON

July 6, 2008

One Door Opens

Walking On a Wire

Crawl Back

Down Where The Drunkards Roll

Dad's Gonna Kill Me

Hots For The Smarts

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

Sunset Song

1952 Vincent Black Lightning

Shoot Out The Lights

I Feel So Good


Cooksferry Queen

(new song - "Time's Gonna Break You"?)

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

She Twists The Knife Again




When The Spell Is Broken

Keep Your Distance




(stock pic, not from Toronto)

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