Wrangling an infectious joyous rhythm from murder ballads in 9/8 and taut, tense odes to middle-aged angst is quite an achievement. But when the sorcerer of rhythm in question is Richard Thompson, one-time Fairport Convention man and legendarily spider-fingered guitar player extraordinaire, it’s perhaps more understandable that the permanently effusive folk superstar can conjure up moments of unbridled joy after almost fifty years in the game.
Since the heady days of the Convention’s commercial peak, Thompson has occupied a towering position at the summit of folk rock. His ’70s solo output ranged from recording an idiosyncratic rock album (Henry The Human Fly) which was reportedly the worst selling album in the history of Warner, to arguably the touchstone of folk rock, I Want To See the Bright Lights, with then-wife Linda Thompson. His greatest commercial successes came at a late stage, in the early ’90s, with the Rumor And Sigh and Mirror Blue albums. Yet Thompson never truly crossed over into mainstream appeal, perhaps cementing his status as am incredibly respected artist with a devoted fan base.
Thompson jokes that his current line-up, an old-fashioned power trio which really is remarkably powerful, merely wish to emulate “Peter, Paul & Mary or The Kingston Trio“. But the live impact of the triumvirate is anything but frivolous. The opening salvo of Stuck on the Treadmill and Sally B, both taken from current album Electric which is currently nestling perhaps uncomfortably in the Top 20, are hammered out with a arithmetic intricacy steeped in folk tradition but executed with merciless, almost suffocating tightness. Thompson’s rampaging guitar runs manage to never sound overtly indulgent yet glisten and glide over Taras Prodaniu’s bass lines with a shimmering virtuosity.
It’s not all new material. Rummaging through the back catalogue, the band display an urgency and sheer sonic propulsion on For Shame of Doing Wrong and I’ll Never Give It Up befitting a band comprised of twice the members on stage. Crucially, Thompson never coasts – there’s no excess filler, the solos from all members are brief yet effective. The band is eventually bolstered in numbers by the addition of family members to add extra poignancy to Tear Stained Letter and the sea shanty Little Sally Racket which was delivered with a buoyancy only slightly tainted by a relative lack of audience chorus participation.
The inevitable parade of encores, punctuated by further ‘nepotism’, is highlighted by an exhilarating take on Hey Joe, the brio of the latter ensuring that the evening was all about the hi-octane Thompson rather than the introspective, deft fingerpicking songwriter of yore. For a man whose original song compositions numbers somewhere in the four hundreds, there was little to differentiate the more recent additions to the canon from the delves into the back catalogue. There’s a seamless elegance to the man’s guitar style – it really could be no one else on that stage, beret cocked to one side, Stratocaster tilting to the folk-funk rhythms. Richard Thompson provided an effortless masterclass in songwriting and guitar technique but above all, graceful, humble acknowledgment of his own outrageous talent.