Richard Thompson |
at the Carefree Theater,
West Palm Beach, Florida
(23 April 2005)
While I despise the self-indulgence inherent in Graham Nash's claim that musicians help to "make peoples' lives less crazy," there's something about rumors of a nearby Richard Thompson show that makes Graham's point. The news was like a helicopter lowering over a rising river and dropping down a rope to pull me out of the flood: Thompson, the greatest guitarist you've never heard of, would be playing live the very next night just down the highway in West Palm Beach. The story featured a photo of Thompson with his arms locked around the neck of his guitar, a smile full of teeth widening across his face as though the thing in his arms was not an instrument at all but rather a precious young daughter captured in her father's proud hug.
But even the feeling of a Richard Thompson ticket in my hand does not prepare me for what awaits. After an usher escorted me to a seat in the second row right in front of center stage -- so close to the man himself that I could almost touch his guitar as he sang -- I set my eyes on a stage equipped with nothing but a single wooden stool, an empty guitar rack and one microphone standing in the dim light of the theater. This would not just be a Richard Thompson show; this would be the man himself alone with nothing but an acoustic guitar to accompany him. This would be a dream.
With his characteristic black beret and clothes as dark as his songs, Thompson stepped out of a side door and into the stage's brightening light to the audience's adoring ovation. Though the two songs he started off the night with were new and unfamiliar, still the fans sitting around me welcomed them in like old classics: some closing their eyes to listen harder, some slowly bobbing their heads to the melancholy chords, some still as stones.
"Those are two songs from my new album that's coming out in August," Thompson explained as the approving applause faded in anticipation. "It's an acoustic CD, I recorded it in my garage."
If the rest of the CD sounds anything like the couple of songs he let us hear, it may very well be the sound Thompson loyalists have been waiting for: a raw, rootsy and unpolished blend of his international influences and songs that demonstrate his enduring lyrical mastery. Yet, for all his stories of wasted loners, misfits and love-ravaged lives, one of the revelations of seeing him live is his sense of humor.
"How was Tampaaa!?" someone shouted, alluding to Thompson's previous performance.
"Tampa? Disgusting!" he said before the crowd erupted with laughter. "Those people are not our kind of people. Badly dressed. Ugly. And quite smelly, really. Even from the stage I was getting these wafts. I much prefer being here."
After a devastating, sing-along rendition of "Down Where the Drunkards Roll," Thompson ripped into a ferocious take on "Crawl Back Under My Stone," his quick fingers exploding on each note like a spider on fire.
"What a badaaaass!!" someone screamed from the first row.
Thompson is blessed with a fan base so loyal that they are as enthusiastic about more recent work as they are about the stirring classics that made his name so many years ago. Songs like "Crawl Back Under My Stone," "Open Door Breathes," "Cooksferry Queen" and "Bathsheba Smiles" from Old Kit Bag and Mock Tudor, his last two albums, received as much praise as "Walking on a Wire," "Shoot Out the Lights" or the epic "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
A further advantage of seeing Thompson live is his willingness to negotiate crowd requests and play tunes that he hadn't rehearsed. Even when someone requested a song he doesn't recall, Thompson vowed to give it a try.
"I'm gonna start doing songs I don't remember," he mutterred to himself, "Which is a good thing, really."
But he also performs work that defies the boundaries established by such a colossal oeuvre. "Hots for the Smarts," for instance, tore up the crowd with its hysterical plea for a woman with brains to go along with the body: "I got the hots for the smarts / IQ off the charts / Gimme brains over heart" he sang amid a song filled with hilariously obscure references to various intellectual curiosities.
Even the captivating fury with which Thompson delivered the night's playlist failed to top the majesty of a double encore, starting with a delightful acoustic makeover of "Misunderstood" and finishing off with a downright wicked "Shoot Out the Lights" from the legendary album of the same name.
As Thompson took his guitar by the neck for the last time, waved, slapped a few hands and walked back out the side door as the standing crowd begged for another song, it became clear that what we just saw was not so much a show as an event, the kind of experience the memory collects in its houseful of stories.