Richard Thompson is an unlikely sort of guitar hero, with that beret and grey goatee combo, his T-shirt and black sleeveless denim jacket, and black jeans. But what he can do with a guitar is truly heroic.
Every fret of that song-worn Stratocaster is touched, every note played and bent. Thompson takes the guitar on a furious whirl, spinning out delicate flurries of acoustic notes or brewing up an electric storm, crashing harmony into discord.
Last night’s concert was with his electric trio. “It’s a large trio,” he said at the start, pointing out that his guitar technician had somehow wormed his way into the band.
“But it’s OK – he’s on the album as well.”
Thompson is a droll fellow, on stage and in interviews. Before introducing one song, he said: “This next one is off an album none of you bought – thanks.”
Someone in the audience shouted: “We did.”
Thompson quipped back: “I haven’t named it yet.” The album was called Acoustic Rarities. “And I know the name of every single person who bought that.”
The song when it came was “They Tore The Hippodrome Down”.
The banter is always part of it, but we came for the songs, and what songs they are: Thompson is a master songwriter as well as one of the greatest players around.
“We’ll play the stuff we want to play,” he said at the start. “Then we’ll play the stuff you want to hear.”
The jerky, menacing “Bones of Gilead” kicks things off, from the excellent new 13 Rivers album. We had to wait for album opener “The Storm Won’t Come”, a song of building tension and stoppered impatience that ends with a furious guitar workout that blows in like the storm just arrived. “The Rattle Within” was also given an airing.
First of the (relatively) older songs was “Take Care The Road You Choose” from 2007’s Sweet Warrior, with the first full solo of the night, a most melodic affair.
Interspersed with the new stuff was a sample of classic Thompson: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, “Persuasion”, the lovely “Beeswing”, “Wall of Death”, and a 50th-anniversary outing for “Meet On The Ledge” – a timeless anthem written when he was 18, then released the following year.
“That means I’ve just given my age away,” he said.
A song that should last forever, and one containing the sort of truths you touch on as a teenager without quite knowing why.
When you’ve written as many songs as Thompson has, you can take your pick. Star billing last night was given to “Put It There, Pal” from his hefty double album You? Me? Us? A snarl of a song and delivered here with teeth bared and the most furiously brilliant guitar solo.
That’s his thing, furious brilliance. He takes a song and spins it around his head, wielding and welding the notes and the chords and the choruses, spinning until that song almost goes out of control. But it never does, because here is a man who knows exactly what he is doing.
Also in the mix last night was “Guitar Heroes”, a song that nods to his teenage guitar nerd self – and to the 69-year-old guitar nerd that boy became. This homage to Django, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and the Shadows is much better live than on the album, Still. “Yeah, as in still at it,” as Thompson once quipped.
And he still is and thank the gods of rough and tender music for that.
His regular band of drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk throw everything into helping Thompson brew up that storm.