Some names have an astounding effect on people. A great many rock stars can expect sighing, swooning, even a cheeky shoulder grope when their name is mentioned. Not for Richard Thompson, strangely. Mention his name, and even the closest of friends look at you as if you’re recommending them a plumber.
It’s hard to hold it against non-Thompson fans; the man’s never seemed too taken with fame and its fickle trappings. At 21, this guitar phenomenon took the road less travelled, leaving the financial security of Fairport Convention to try out his songs on an unsuspecting world. He’s walked the fine line between modesty and mystery, letting his fresh, vivid songs speak for themselves.
Forty years later, on a chilly night in January, Richard Thompson begins his 2011 UK and Europe tour at the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre. He proceeds to rock the casbah as the casbah has never been rocked before. Casbahs up and down the country now tremble, in anticipation of being rocked.
Not bad for somebody your friends have never heard of. He takes to the stage in trademark beard and beret; flanking him are his four musketeers, each a seasoned session man in his own right. There’s Michael Jerome on the skins; Taras Prodaniuk, the indomitable bass end; Joel Zifkin playing spry fiddle and mandolin, and Pete Zorn, master of any instrument you care to name.
The band shake the foundations with opener ‘The Money Shuffle‘, a jaded, raging rocker with a riff you could cut diamonds on. That Stratocaster tone is instantly recognisable to the fans, and nothing short of a revelation to newcomers. Zorn and Zifkin bring their criminally underrated instruments to the fore; you half start to hear echoes of E Street in the slick revelry of ‘Demons In Her Dancing Shoes‘.
Latest album ‘Dream Attic‘ dominates the first half of the show, making for sounds both mystic and sublime. ‘Among The Gorse, Among The Grey‘ comes along like rolling thunder, then segues into a footstomping Irish funeral boogie, conjuring up the dark delights of Fairport’s own Matty Groves.
The audience laps it up. They start to get comfortable with the classic material now the new songs are out there. Students and pensioners and everyone with a beard in between, they heckle Thompson with good humour and increasing frequency. Thompson takes it all in his humongous stride: “Did I mention all the happy songs are in the second set?”
We’re finally left with the exquisite heartache of ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight‘, that dazzling gem in a back catalogue of incalculable riches. As the lights come up, a synchronised grumble goes round: “Where was ‘Vincent Black Lightning‘? He always plays ‘Vincent Black Lightning‘…” Still, if we didn’t like a good grumble, why else would we be here?
Well. Let’s not mince words: Richard Thompson is nothing short of a guitar virtuoso, in the purest and frankest sense. He doesn’t need to leap and windmill his way through a set when his fingers can hurdle and glide their way up and down the fretboard the way they do.
This shrewd old man actually has us in the palm of his hand. What other guitarist can boast such range and staggering scope to their music? He sings “love is worth every wound” and follows it with a crushing, guttural, show-stopping solo. He takes us into the song, and what’s more, he sustains it; he makes us believe these are the dying thrashes of a hopeful heart. The last notes reverberate into the Lyric Theatre, and his face is framed in stark ribbons of light. Top that, everybody who ever picked up a guitar.