Monday, September 12th, 2011
Walking On A Wire
Richard Thompson at Koerner Hall in Toronto
Frank YangI’ve been mentally composing my writeup for Richard Thompson’s visit to Toronto last week, as I do, and went digging through my archives for past pieces on the artist to perhaps link to as relevant, also standard procedure, which brought this piece I wrote back in 2005. And it’s helpful, as it actually covers a lot of the preface that I was preparing, but also mortifying as I didn’t realize that I’d already written – sometimes verbatim – what I was planning to write with regards to my personal history with Thompson’s music. You know you’ve been doing this too long when you’re recycling material without even knowing it. So go back and read that, if you please. I’ll wait here. And if you can’t be bothered, I’ll simply sum up with the fact that Thompson is one of the world’s greatest living singer/songwriter/guitarists and this isn’t up for debate.
Finding that entry was also notable because it reminded me that I hadn’t done a very good job of keeping up with Thompson’s work since then, missing both Front Parlour Ballads and last year’s Dream Attic; and while I do have 2007’s Sweet Warrior, I haven’t exactly worn it out. Similarly, I missed both of Thompson’s last visits – in 2008 at the Danforth Music Hall and 2005 at Trinity-St. Paul’s – my only live experience being back in 2003 at the Toronto Star Bluesfest at Exhibition Place, a jaw-dropping experience despite the less than auspicious setting. There would be no complaints about the venue last Thursday night, with Thompson being booked into the jaw-droppingly gorgeous – both visually and acoustically – Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music – a fitting room for a recently-honoured Officer of the Order of the British Empire, methinks. This was to be a solo show in all regards, just Thompson with a single acoustic guitar – no band, no opener, not even an amplifier (though he was mic-ed – the acoustics of the room weren’t THAT good) – truly as simple as you could get, but also all that he’d need.
Well, that and his immense, almost 40-year deep songbook. For over an hour and a half, Thompson explored the breadth of his repertoire including a nod back to his early days with Fairport Convention by way of a cover of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” and a couple of selections from Shoot Out The Lights though not the title track, which I grudgingly accept as an electric song. Much of the set, however, focused on his ’90s material – well-documented on the Action Packed compilation – indicating that I wasn’t the only one who was most familiar with his works from that era. Highlights were plentiful, with any fears that an unplugged set would mean less guitar heroics put well to rest early on with astonishing excursions on Mock Tudor‘s “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)”, his one-man, six-string Zydeco band impersonation on “Valerie” or even how his down-tuning segued perfectly into the intro of his tour de force “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”.
If anything, playing acoustic didn’t mean fewer solos, only more astonishing ones. Understand that Thompson doesn’t solo like anyone else – for someone of his instrumental repute, he’s one of the least-copied because, well, it’s damn near impossible to ape his unique blend of folk, Celtic, and rock moves. And while you might reasonably question why a player would want to make his axe sound like bagpipes, hearing how Thompson works it into his music – making leads less about being showy as adding intense instrumental conversations to the topic at hand – you’d get it. The 1100 or so people on hand this night certainly did.
While it’s all well and good to focus on Thompson’s instrumental prowess, it’s crucial to note that on his songwriting scoreboard, each unearthly bend and riff is matched by a lyric of deliciously black English humour or a character either wronged or doing the wronging in love. Perhaps it was the setting and his having my undivided attention, but even songs that I didn’t like so much on record like Sweet Warrior‘s cruse ship comedy “Johnny’s Far Away” was considerably more entertaining live, thanks in no small part to the humorous intros Thompson prepended onto it and others. A bevy of charmingly corny jokes also got Thompson through a patch of having to change a string on his guitar; to reiterate – the man restrung his own guitar. He only brought the one.
It doesn’t seem right to register complaints for such a stunning show, but I was disappointed that neither of Mirror Blue‘s finest acoustic moments – “King Of Bohemia” and “Beeswing” – were left out. But for the encores we did get his cover of Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again” which engendered an audience singalong – hilarious if you consider the age demographic of most in attendance – as well as the wonderfully dark “I Misunderstood” and a gorgeous reading of “Walking On A Wire”. The standard line on Richard Thompson is that he’s one of the world’s most under-recognized and underappreciated musicians – which may well be true – but you wouldn’t have known it from this performance and the reception it got.
Photos: Richard Thompson @ Koerner Hall – September 8, 2011
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Harlan’s Bounce”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Treadwell No More”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Uninhabited Man”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Dear Janet Jackson”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Banks Of The Nile”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “The Sights And Sounds Of London Town”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “I Agree With Pat Methany”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Keep Your Distance”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”
MP3: Richard Thompson – “Hard On Me”
Zach Condon of Beirut is interviewed by NPR and given his run of Drowned In Sound to post whatever he and his bandmates like, but not before submitting to an interview. And oh, there’s a new video available from The Rip Tide.
Video: Beirut – “Santa Fe”
Spin talks to Chris Taylor of CANT (and also Grizzly Bear, while Pitchfork has a stream of Dreams Come True, his solo debut in that identity. It’s out tomorrow and he plays The Garrison on October 21.
Stream: CANT / Dreams Come True
Video: Mastodon – “Black Tongue”