Perth Concert Hall
2nd September 2015
Perth Concert Hall, when you consider that Perth is hardly a major hub, gets some great name acts. It’s hardly surprising that they got in on the current Richard Thompson tour. I guess it’s less surprising that The Rails wangled a support spot, given that half of the duo, Kami Thompson, is Richard’s daughter – as Richard himself remarked later in the evening, “Nepotism will get you just about anywhere!”
Let’s be clear about this, no way am I saying that The Rails didn’t merit and didn’t carry the support spot. On the contrary, they most certainly did, and gave us a wonderful set. There is no nation on earth like the English for holding its own folk music and customs in utter despite, in laughing at the morris dances and bucolic songs of its past. Maybe there’s some good historical reason for this, maybe it has to do with the Industrial Revolution and the drift of population from country to town – who can say? – but despite the evangelism of singers like Martin Carthy, England is a country largely without significant extant folklore. I know it’s strange to write this in Scotland, but it feels good to find members of a post-Carthy generation who are prepared to draw on an English past treasury and make it their own. Thus when James Walbourne and Kami Thompson come on stage and sing versions of The Butcher’s Boy, Bold William Taylor, and The Jealous Sailor, it’s damned refreshing to say the least. James is the stronger of the two musically, his guitar often carrying the songs along, in a way rather reminiscent of Martin Simpson’s accompaniment of June Tabor, but with a more attacking, punky style. His is such positive and confident playing that when they prologued the second half of the concert with a song from the ‘Thompson’ album, James actually took a precedent solo to Richard, and indulged in a sawal-jawab with the man! James and Kami sing together harmonizing perfectly, but less convincingly when they both take the melody line. Their set contained other folk material from Scotland and Ireland, songs like The Willow Tree and Habit that had a country feel to them, and contemporary material such as James’s Panic Attack Blues. The latter was written after a drinking session with Shane MacGowan. Yeah, I can imagine. Seriously, I’m keeping my eye on this duo, it was a pretty good set.
I have to confess that over the past decades I have never been caught up in Thompsonmania, and so I guess I’m the right person to send along to review a Richard Thompson gig with a degree of objectivity. I have been aware of him, of course, aware of his expertise on the guitar, and aware of some achingly beautiful songs (Beeswing, for example, and Turning of the Tide). But back in the day you were either a partisan of traditional folk or contemporary folk; as you might guess from my comments above about The Rails’ material, my vote went to traditional. Thus, a little after the seminal folk-rock album Morris On I lost touch with Richard’s career as it moved more and more into rock. I only caught up again later, grew to appreciate his work, but somehow never developed the patience to devour, say, a full album at one sitting. I always found too many tracks that didn’t speak to me. So how did I find a full concert?
The L.A. Times compares Richard’s songwriting, qualitatively, to that of Bob Dylan, and his guitar-playing to that of Jimi Hendrix. The Philadelphia Enquirer invokes Neil Young and Prince. It has to be said that Richard is not quite the household name that some of these cited artists are, probably because of his occupation of a particular musical niche. To those who do not go to that niche for their musical sustenance he is a relative unknown. You might have to go back to the 1960s to find one of his songs getting mainstream pop radio airing – that would be Fairport Convention’s Meet On The Ledge – which cannot be said of any of the others named. Does he deserve these accolades, and moreover did he deserve them on the night? Well, his set proper started with All Buttoned Up from his latest album, Still, and that’s a good place to start because it’s a number that showcases Richard’s straight-ahead rock guitar; in places I could hear the validity of the comparison with Prince. As the evening went on and I got more absorbed in his playing, I began to hear some very basic sounds that took me to Link Wray or Dick Dale, and some melodic lines that made me think that Mark Knopfler maybe had similar sounds running around in his head. But then Richard would take off and shred like a demon, entirely without histrionics – in no way did he look superannuated, or as if he were trying too hard, all he ever looked like was a man totally at ease with a Stratocaster in his hands – and I realised that he could hold a master class for any rock guitarists you would care to name.
His song Guitar Heroes, again from Still, is a piece of engaging silliness, in which he emulates – and invites us to spot – five guitarists that inspired him in his youth. To be fair, they are flagged up in the lyrics – Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton, and Hank Marvin – but as the number has the basic rhythm of an Elvis Presley 45 I could also cite Bill Black. And the ending had a touch of Pete Townsend!
In the middle of the set Richard picked up an acoustic and soloed. He played one of those ‘achingly brilliant’ songs I mentioned earlier, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. This is the one Richard Thompson track I would take with me onto a desert island. Albeit a contemporary song about a girl on the street corner and the kind of rocker who would turn up at the Ace café just to sneer at the Triumphs and Nortons and Beezers, it is a song that shows Richard to be anchored in folk music. Okay James Adie is not a sailor and Red Molly is not a milkmaid, James Adie is not a soldier boy and Red Molly is not a serving girl, but when you listen to the song you could be forgiven for thinking that there is, somewhere, a lost Child Ballad where a bold highwayman wills his faithful steed to an innkeeper’s daughter! It is an amazing song, and one that travels, one that can be picked up by performers in other genres – if you don’t believe me, just look for Del McCoury’s straight Bluegrass version.
Richard’s ‘Electric Trio’, by the way, includes bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome. I’m going to mention Michael Jerome’s drumming. It was like rifle-fire. Seldom have I known a drummer get such a range of sounds out of a relatively small drum kit. The trio meshed perfectly, and won two double-encores. Was I converted? Put it this way: by the time we all joined in (yes, even me) with the chorus of Tear-Stained Letter I had had enough. But that’s just me. I didn’t come to the gig to be converted, and it’s not going to stop me awarding five stars, because it was a five-star gig and that’s that. Do not let an opportunity to see Richard Thompson play live slip by. He’s only in Scotland for a short time, playing Aberdeen Music Hall on the 3rd and Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on the 5th. After that you’ll have to follow the tour bus through the north of England… but it’d be worth the effort.
Reviewer : Paul Thompson