LIVE: Richard Thompson @ The Egg, 12/05/2021
ALBANY — Folk legend Richard Thompson graced The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Sunday, December 5, 2021, after a longer than usual absence from the region due to the recent pandemic. He was well worth the wait, bringing his rich and intricate sound on stage along with his wry humor and wit.
Thompson opened with “Stony Ground,” a piece he gruffly stated, “is a song of mature lust that I thought this audience would be the ideal target for…and I was right.” He smiled then, finding the sweet spot on his guitar as the lines around his eyes deepened into genuine joy. Thompson was playing to an audience with an experience, much like him; many admitted to seeing him perform at least more than two dozen times and yet were drawn back magnetically to his music.
It could be that Thompson’s unapologetic songs tell real stories about real people that we can all related to in ways that are unique. His lyrics weave poetic webs around the audience, holding them in place while washing over them with powerful and stunning guitar. Thompson’s second song, “If I Could Live My Life Again,” recalled the vibe of Johnny Cash’s bluesy sound as he regretted poor choices. He chose the wrong friends, let love slip away, and while he sought redemption, Thompson’s left foot danced to the downbeat with ferocity.
Thompson’s guitar playing alone is enough to bring awe for listeners and clearly brings him joy as well. He stood alone on the stage with his guitar, tuning between songs with ease and finding the string exactly where he wanted them. From “Persuasion,” a piece written with Tim Finn, to later “Beeswing,” the guitar playing felt like breathing for Thompson. His technique allows him to pull off licks as if they were simple, meanwhile drawing deep pleasure even from within himself.
Thompson began reading from his memoir “Beeswing” which was published recently around song four. With a wink and a nod, he shared the story of “sampling the goods” at a red light district that was legally sanctioned in the 1970s Hamburg, Germany. He shared openly that the visit to the prostitute that he shared was something like “talking with a social worker with a happy ending.” He wrote a song about the experience after, and its frantic pace and intense chord progression seemed to capture the emotions of the experience through sound.
That is what Thompson does best in his songwriting: he matches meaning with form. The following piece flowed between minor and major keys as he soulfully grieves a lost love. “The Ghost of You Walks” created meaning organically, matching form and sound with lyrics.
“Beeswing” is a favorite of this writer, and when he played it early in the night there was a melting felt throughout the room. He slowed during the last verse, painfully telling the story of a woman who refused the price of love only to miss it. After the last chord, the crowd clapped and verbally thanked Thompson for the performance, to which he winked and stated in his British accent, “Ah, it’s nothing.” His humility at that moment, passing off possibly one of the greatest folk songs as almost nothing, was stunning.
He continued to launch through songs, betraying no signs of fatigue as he ripped through “Walking on a Wire” and more readings about his youthful experiences with music that led him to “Walking the Long Miles Home.” Thompson had the crowd exactly where he wanted them, and even when memory lapsed and he missed a verse, no one seemed to care. “This is all live, not a tape you know. I throw in a few mistakes to show that,” he laughed.
As he rounded through “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the lyrical song had the crowd nodding and singing along. Thompson was unabashedly grateful to his early career, referencing other musicians and songwriters such as Sally Bensen as he sang some of her work. He added a singalong, “Down Where The Drunkards Roam,” after explaining the English tradition of offering musicians Folk Clubs as a chance to hone skills. “It’s different from coffee houses,” he explained. In the 1960s, there were over 600 such clubs in the UK per Thompson’s words, and over 200 remain today.
After an hour of solo performances and a full set, Thompson could’ve rested. But instead, he brought up a second microphone on stage and invited Zara Phillips to join him on the stage. They sang duets then, and the energy suddenly dampened. Initially, there was a sense that perhaps folks were unaware of the new songs, like “Wall of Death” and “The Fortress.” But it became clear that something else was at play as well; often singing in unison, Phillips’ voice was no match for the timbre and passion of Thompson’s. She needed more volume, and perhaps more air, to keep pace.
The two played “Keep Your Distance” together without much playfulness, and Phillips even sounded a bit flat. “As I Hold You” conveyed the grief of the loss of friends, and seemed to be a better moment, as was “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” But overall, Phillips’ presence didn’t add much to the sound of the performance, and while not terribly out of tune, their combined sound lacked the pleasing feeling of earlier solo songs.
Thompson emerged for the encore alone and read again from his memoir, sharing how at 21 his band fell flat to their opening act. The Fairport Convention’s response was to get drunk and play a “terrible set,” and then later to try on other band’s moves to stay relevant. “It felt fraudulent,” he wrote, “so we resigned ourselves to smaller, more discriminating audiences. And no boots,” he chuckled, a style they had tried on once. He then launched into an audience member’s request, “Cooksferry Queen” with rousing energy.
Alone on stage, Thompson returned to his authentic self, tumbling through guitar riffs with brutally honest lyrics sung in a way that clearly would inspire musicians such as Springsteen and Etheridge in years to come. Phillips rejoined him for “The Tinker’s Rhapsody,” and when they sang in harmony they sounded better. The melody of that song sounded like creek water running over stones, with one syllable passing through multiple pitches before landing on slow, steady syllables that followed. Both pleasing and unusual, that song generated a strong response from the crowd before Thompson and Phillips launched into “When The Saints Rise Out of Their Graves.”
Thompson is a legend for a reason: his unmatched talent, songwriting, and stage presence demand attention. It would be difficult for anyone to stand next to him and not pale in comparison. Phillips’ presence, while not painful, just didn’t add much.
But how could it? What is there to add to Richard Thompson, after all? Worthy of repeated attendance at his concerts, Thompson is a musician that demands a solo stage.
Before this concert, Jim and I had walked around the plaza outside the Egg, enjoying the winter scene of ice skaters and tree lightings. After the concert, all that was dark. But inside we were on fire, a fire of passion lit by Mr. Thompson.