4 November 2010
Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
[On occasion, our far-flung correspondents attend and review shows. Here's another installment.]
BY THE NIGHT OWL
Twenty-five years ago, this reviewer sat in the back of an intimate Madison, Wisconsin theater waiting on headliner Randy Newman. But first, a tall, lanky Englishman topped with a beret and an unassuming acoustic guitar stepped up to a lone microphone.
It was Richard Thompson.
The only thing I knew about Thompson was his cult status due to an album that many had praised, but few had actually heard: Shoot Out The Lights (1982), the extraordinary group of songs recorded with his ex-wife, Linda. His notoriety of a guitar boy wonder had only taken root in the UK after his regional success with Fairport Convention in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s.
By 1985, Richard Thompson was caught in the jaws of the music industry machine. He had moved from England to Los Angeles, seeking an audience in the US. But his deal with Polygram had failed to produce sufficient record sales, and he would soon be looking for a new label.
So there Thompson was in a Wisconsin college town, busking before the crowd as a warm up act for Newman (a man who had also known what it was like to be under appreciated by the general music fandom). And damned if he wasn't mesmerizing. Self-effacing and a wizard with his hands, the acoustic performance would stick in my mind for a long time and encourage me to pay attention to his future releases, no matter how obscure they might become over the years.
This past Thursday night at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, a now 61-year old Richard Thompson played to nearly a full house in support of a brand new batch of originals contained on his latest CD, Dark Attic. He strolled on to the stage looking like a Bohemian working man, sporting his black beret, a keffiyeh patterned scarf and jeans. The major attraction for this show was Thompson strapping on his famous baby blue Fender Stratocaster. In tow was a crack band: Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Joel Zifkin on fiddle and mandolin, Michael Jerome on drums and uber-musician and vocalist Pete Zorn (we should probably just list the instruments he can't play).
The first set took some guts, even if Thompson was playing mostly to the faithful. The band played Dream Attic in its entirety, in sequential order. While the album itself was recorded live, and certainly was road tested to begin with, the lyrical content is, ahem, not the most uplifting. ("The happy songs come in the second part of the show," deadpanned Thompson.)
Highlights were many. The opener, "The Money Shuffle," is a driving melody that does not hide the author's disdain for the recent misdeeds of Wall Street. "Haul Me Up" cues into a Sun Records beat that sounds like Johnny Cash crossed with Hank Williams; Zifkin's clever fiddle segued beautifully into a furious Thompson solo. "Crime Scene" is a heartbreaking tale that lyrically pays attention to the humanity that is so often missing in a media that favors sensationalism over the reality of "a soul torn away." That darkness was punctuated nicely by Jerome's use of drum mallets. "Big Sun Falling On The River" painted a vivid picture of the Thames River in London with a melody that could have fit on Rubber Soul.
Then the band started to hit its stride with a grouping of four Dream Attic songs that translate very well to the live stage. "Stumble On" showed Thompson not only as a technically proficient electric guitarist but also a soulful one. The listener can also imagine him playing this tune on his acoustic with his fiddle player late at night in the snug of an Irish pub. A 9/8 time murder ballad dressed as a loud rock jig followed; "Sydney Wells" rouses the crowd to its feet, powered by a soprano sax and fiddle cacophony which melts into a violent guitar solo, mirroring the gruesome chaos of a brutal murderer. "A Brother Slips Away" is searingly poignant, each verse one of remembrance of loved ones lost and the creeping mortality that we all must face sooner or later. And "Bad Again" brings to mind the early 1960s swing of "Got My Mind Set On You." Zorn picks up and honks the baritone sax, bringing a wry smile to Thompson's face, who glides through the vocal with a voice just as solid as it was 25 years ago.
Set two opened with a nod to the Fairport days: "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away" reflects his first band's patented combination of Celtic rock and Renaissance courtyard. "Can't Win" sported a Thompson electric guitar solo that almost exhausts this listener. Almost as if sensing this, the band leader finally picks up an acoustic guitar and treats the audience to "One Door Opens," a Moroccan-tinged melody that highlights how effortlessly Thompson shifts from strumming to finger picking; during this song he looks particularly pleased at one point in nailing a difficult chord.
Thompson has said in interviews that acoustic playing has become more physically challenging than electric at his age. This seems to be borne out after he finishes "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" when he squeezes and shakes out both hands to regain a little circulation. But there certainly appears to be no hangover when he launches into the one-two punch of "I'll Never Give It Up" and "Wall of Death." The former features the sound that Thompson has uniquely patented over the years: a kind of English cousin to Elvis' noted fret-man, James Burton. The latter is the sole selection from Shoot Out The Lights, which benefits from a nice complimentary vocal by Zorn.
The set winds up with the Little Richard flavored raver "Tear Stained Letter," and if the crowd doesn't know it by now, it is surely aware that any guitar solo by Thompson is never an exercise in navel-gazing. Indeed, they have witnessed one of the best ever at his instrument, who is still contributing vital music over 40 years after bursting on the music scene.
SET ONE - Dream Attic
1. The Money Shuffle
2. Among The Gorse, Among The Grey
3. Haul Me Up
4. Burning Man
5. Here Comes Geordie
6. Demons In Her Dancing Shoes
7. Crime Scene
8. Big Sun Falling In The River
9. Stumble On
10. Sidney Wells
11. A Brother Slips Away
12. Bad Again
13. If Love Whispers Your Name
1. The Angels Took My Racehorse Away
2. Can't Win
3. One Door Opens
4. Al Bowlly's In Heaven
5. I'll Never Give It Up
6. Wall of Death
7. Tear Stained Letter
8. Take Care The Road You Choose
9. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight