Monday, January 27, 2020

Rock Room on the Road: Richard Thompson- 'The Night We Steal Away' - Solo Acoustic January 25, 2020 Harrisburg, PA

On January 25, 2020, the ‘rock room’ was lucky enough to attend an intimate solo acoustic performance by the one and only Richard Thompson at Whitaker Center for the Arts in Harrisburg, PA.  Thompson has been moving around the Northeast for a series of winter shows and my anticipation was high for what was sure to be a varied and virtuosic concert. The Whitaker Center contains inside of its walls the quaint Sunoco Center which holds 700 patrons while no seat is more than 60 feet from the performer.

I sat 7 rows back and dead center as Thompson entered the stage lights promptly at 8:00 PM. Seated right in the sweet spot where performer and attendee meet. At some points in my amazed consciousness I met glances with Thompson only intensifying the effect of the music. The succinct and percussive introduction of ‘I Misunderstood’ initiated the proceedings. The song originates from Thompson’s 1991 LP Rumor and Sigh and was a proper opening to stretch out his vocal chords and energize cold fingers. Different from its layered studio counterpart, here light shines through the empty spaces leaving nowhere to hide for song or performer. Thompson stands stoically center stage, dressed in black and grey denim with guitar and glass of water and trademark beret planted on top of his head. The sound of the concert is enveloping, like glacier water, a special type of pristine, Thompson’s guitar notes shimmer through the collective silence of the theater taking on a tangible form. Thompson mentioned that he was surprised at the crowd attending the show seeing that it was Saturday night. He revealed that he thought folks could find something much more ‘positive’ to do than listen to his dark compositions in  his typical self-deprecating fashion.

The first ‘movement’ of the concert spotlighted a cross section of Thompson’s career with every rendition a stunning highlight. The perfection of Thompson’s playing in addition to his unparalleled songwriting left the collected crowd in stunned silence for the duration of the two hour set. A spectrally delicate ‘A Ghost of You Walks’ followed the opener, prepping for the first stunner of the evening. ‘Valerie’ from 1985’s Daring Adventures came next and left the room breathless. During the mid-song spotlight Thompson slurred strings, chicken picked and bent strings like they had been heated. Thompson played showman for a moment hitting on a pleasing lick that brought a smile across his face and caused his shoe leathers to stomp on the stage. During the songs peak and the marked scream that leads back to the verse, the crowd put their hands up for the big roller coaster dip prior to landing in major applause. Thompson remarked at the songs conclusion, ‘That was easy, the hard stuff comes later’.

Thompson always likes to throw for lack of a better term, a novelty, or slyly humorous compositions in the midst of his collected dark sarcasm and shaded honesty. The song, ‘Crocodile Tears’ fits that droll bill as a wry folk song comparing a jilted lover to that of a reptile. The crowd loved it and chuckled along to each line as Thompson flashed a grin from the corner of his mouth for some of the best lyrics.

In total and extreme contrast, one of Thompson’s most beloved songs and in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion one of the finest songs in the annals of music followed with ‘Beeswing’. A classically stunning melody and heart tugging narrative, ‘Beeswing’ when birthed sat unassumingly on Thompson’s 1994 Mirror Blue. Since it has grown into a concert standard, and this evening it was given a crystalline reading, one only to be handled by white gloved hands. Thompson, eyes tightly closed,  sang a tale he has told numerous times previous, yet here as important as any ever. Perfection, and as the song concluded Thompson stayed in trance until the last remnants of stringed sound reached the apex of the theater. 
Before I could recover emotionally from what I had just witnessed, Thompson hit me again with another stratospheric melody and classic from the deep reaches of his catalog, ‘Walking on a Wire’ from Richard and Linda Thompson’s final LP, 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights. This evening the ballad was given a more aggressive edge, the taught tight rope becoming a silvery knife blade to which Thompson used large strums and gruff vocals to keep his balance. The concert was climbing into the clouds toward a musical summit that it would not return from until the final song.

‘Walking the Long Miles Home’ followed and returned the concert attendees and myself to firmer ground. Richard introduced the song by saying he wished he had composed it as a youth to help him with the miles he had to traverse to school as a child. Supported by a delectable and danceable jaunt of finger picking, the song provided a brief respite from the ‘heavier’ aspects of Thompson’s performance.

Following a discussion/introduction about Thompson’s former band mate and friend Sandy Denny, Thompson poured himself into a timeless tribute to both Denny and his Fairport Convention band mates, with a towering version of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. In contrast to Denny’s original vocals, Thompson sings with a deep amber, dotted with precious lacy filigrees of acoustic guitar. Rare is the concert I attend where there is complete silence by the assembled crowd. This evening there was nary a labored breath or squirm in the seat. Again, before I could soak in what I witnessed, Thompson throttled into what could be his most famous number, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’.The crowd yelled its approval as Thompson Travis picked out the songs well known opening. Speeding through the narrative, cruising around hairpin musical corners and enunciating each syllable, Thompson played a quintessential version (which probably happens every night!). When Red Molly finally received the keys to her lovers Vincent the crowd responded with a standing ovation (which would happen on more than a few occasions over the evening).

With its reference to dancing on a Saturday night, we were next treated to a somewhat rare reading of ‘The Night They Tore the Hippodrome Down’. The tale of an older man who is stunned by the changes to the things that have dotted and effected his life is the perfect bring down following ‘Vincent’. Here, Thompson shows off his ‘jazz’ chops during the verses and then changes to waltz time when the protagonist remembers his lost love.

Hot on the ‘Hippodrome’s’ heels follows the high speed ‘Cooksferry Queen’ which opened RT’s Mock Tudor LP. Normally a burning electric number, in Harrisburg Thompson blew on collected woody embers until a blazing hot to the touch acoustic version brought the house down. Dynamic strumming patterns brought the tune from soft folk to big brash triplet strums. Richard growled, howled, and stomped his way through this ‘rock room’ favorite! Closing what I referred to as the ‘first movement’ of the show (prior to RT’s partner joining the proceedings) was the song, ‘If I Could Live My Life Again’. Now admittedly I am embarrassed to say I am not familiar with this song. Please feel free to drop the knowledge on me if have info about this tune. It was introspective and typically wonderful and could be a new song? Hmmm.

It was at this time Richard invited his partner and a wonderful singer in her own right, Zara Phillips to join him on a series of songs from Thompson’s more current releases. But before diving into the recent catalog the duo played a stunning version of the Richard and Linda Thompson classic, ‘Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair’ from 1975’s Pour Down Like Silver. This was a cut that the ‘rock room’ had hoped for and I was not disappointed. Zara and Richard’s vocals nestled closely together and their enjoyment was palpable. They soared the friendly melodic skies of the chorus and settled down easy for the verses. A personal concert highlight for me, because I love the song so much.
Like the entire set list, Thompson was deftly and successfully maneuvering his way through 50 years of songwriting. He had used a beloved deep cut to set the stage for this next collection of his current work while also letting Zara lend her welcome voice to the proceedings. ‘Dry My Tears and Move On’ was a welcome appearance and a second song from 1999’s Mock Tudor. Played with a gentle back porch sway and delicate resignation, Zara joined on the repeated title lyric lending the track an early rock and roll doo-wop feel. The main body of the concert then concluded properly with the trifecta of ‘The Storm Won’t Come’, The Rattle Within’, and ‘My Enemy’ all hailing from Thompson’s most current album, 2018’s 13 Rivers.

It’s a testament to Thompson’s longevity and talent that these following three songs were in my opinion as strong as the compositions covering the 50 years previous. While 'The Storm Won't Come' was better in my opinion than the studio reading, ‘The Rattle Within’ was particularly menacing with a deep musical warning and daring self-analysis. Containing an undulating primal thump the song chugged aggressively under Thompson’s percussive vocal lines.

The crowd reacted rapturously as ‘My Enemy’ concluded and Thompson quickly waved to the darkened venue before heading off stage. The expected encore followed the anticipatory silence as Thompson returned solo and coaxed out the introductory notes to ‘Persuasion’. What a deft choice for an excited crowd I thought. Master of the stage. The song was composed by Thompson and Tim Finn and was used as an instrumental in the film Street Walker. Later, Richard recorded a version with his son Teddy who appeared on vocals. Tonight, Richard stands alone and plays a chill inducing and flawless version.

Keeping the vibe mellow and the emotion serious Thompson then sings the introduction to ‘Dimming of the Day’. Covered by a plethora of artists including David Gilmour and Bonnie Raitt, ‘Dimming’ is one of those special songs that defies description’ its music box picking and sensual verses expressing the deep internal longing we feel for those we love. In typical fashion Thompson, disseminates human emotion in ways not yet figured by ‘normal’ artists. Seated at the show, the melody drew tears from my eyes and unfurled the strings of my heart. Stunning.

Following the introspective portion of the encore Thompson returned to the stage with Zara to send us on our way appropriately for a Saturday evening. The somewhat expected ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ comes first with the crowd mouthing the words of the Richard and Linda classic and clapping to RT’s syncopated and celebratory riffing. Then for a proper surprise, Thompson then gifts the crowd with a yet to be unreleased song (hopefully from an upcoming LP) called ‘When the Saints Rise out of Their Graves’. The high tempo track was a unique but typical Thompson commentary on our current times (both politically and personally) with the lyrics flying buy in teletype fashion. Both Zara and Richard moved around the stage joyously as the song reached a rolling conclusion.

And…..just like that it was over. Two hours of the most soul inspiring, intellectually stimulating and musically stunning concert experiences I have ever had in over 300 concerts. I cannot believe it took me so long to experience the live magic that is Richard Thompson. The performance left me wanting more and I cannot wait to go again. A purer and more honest evening of diverse musical alchemy  will be hard to find. In addition, its a pleasure to witness a spectacular fifty year career that seems to just be hitting yet another peak, don’t miss it.

Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics

RT Live In Studio 13 Rivers Songs

2 comments:

  1. I've seen Richard Thompson several times, and it is always amazing. Your review really captures the magic that RT creates. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you as always for your comments and kind words Bob. I cannot wait to see RT again!

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