Monday, July 2, 2012

Richard Thompson @ The Rio, Santa Cruz CA: Music Review

Where my gray(ing) hair blends in rather than singles me out, I guess I’ve met my demographic. I had celebrated my birthday a few days ago on this very vacation, but I was one of the youngest at this sell-out gig at an intimate theater (converted movie palace) on the west side of this famously counterculture, but comfortably accommodated and settled, bastion in this balmy coastal college city.

Nothing wrong with that; I had seen Richard Thompson probably twenty years ago at McCabe’s, a tiny club-music store in the guitarist-singer-songwriter’s adopted home of Santa Monica and that silvered, bearded, still often hirsute as well as balding crowd would have matched this, even if my hair was reddish-brown then. I wondered, yet, from the calls of the crowd how much they knew of his tremendous back catalogue, and especially his (pre-)history with one of my favorite bands (at least from the early period with his contributions), Fairport Convention.

As we waited in line outside the Rio, a college-aged kid, bleary-eyed, hang-dog, hung out of the backseat of a car. Traffic slowed, and he leaned out to yell: "Who's playing?" We pointed up at the theater marquee: "Richard Thompson. 6-29." He asked who he was. I yelled "guitarist. Folk." I added perhaps dogmatically: "British, since the 1960s. Fairport Convention. Solo. Famous guitarist." He answered, a bit bleary: "I'll check him out." I heard a voice in the crowd, perhaps my friend Chris, mutter, "Go back to Bob Marley." (Oddly, RT would mimic a few bars of his "Freedom" that night.)

The fellow next to us in line and behind us directly in the seats (we sat in perfect center, fifteen rows back) chattered on and on. He needed no introduction, but was happy to give one. Must have been a military brat as he said he grew up in England but he had no accent; saw them thirty years ago, went to every show within two hundred miles; going to Cropredy (the annual reunion of Fairport and associates to be held as Thompson noted on stage “in a muddy field in Oxfordshire in a couple month’s time”). I reflected to our hosts, locals and fellow fans Bob and Chris, how I never could rhapsodize even over a musician I admired. I felt as if an anthropologist studying the mores of Santa Cruzians gathered for a tribal ceremony to honor a visiting potentate who possessed magic spells.

As a fan more of Fairport, who ranks in my Top Five Ever for the overlooked, gawky, but innovative sophomore LP What We Did on Our Holidays from the amazing three albums in ’69 preceding the one that pioneered British folk-rock, Liege + Lief, I liked Thompson’s acerbic, wintry playing. He'd turned nineteen that annus mirabilis, and the band were his age or barely older. Amazing. After Sandy Denny left after the breakthrough of Liege – as the band reached its heights—to pursue a less antiquarian tangent, critics wondered how fans would respond to the new leader Thompson’s vocals.

In concert here, I admired his Scottish-inflected (not in accent so much as rhythmically chanted) delivery. His forebears were from over Hadrian’s Wall, and I know he grew up listening to what back in the late 50s and early 60s was unfashionable, compared to the R+B and blues favored by Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, the Beatles, and their ilk. This distinguished him from his English colleagues, who tended to turn to Chicago, Memphis, or the Delta for inspiration. Folk defines Thompson’s songs (Chris as a guitar player noted Thompson’s slack-key and “Texas chords” incorporated into his lines, staccato and fluid in turn or mood) yet as with Denny does not limit them. 

Well, Thompson to his eternal credit came on sharp at 8 p.m. I could see him straight ahead, and after an awful reverb marred his first song, the balance kicked in and I watched his fingers move and his face contort with pleasure, energy, attention, and wryness. Layne thought him less snide than before and Bob found him looser in approach. I have seen him (I think I may have attended his 1000 Years of Popular Music tour but remain uncertain, although I bought the record!) at least twice, at McCabe’s and as part of the Harry Smith American Folk Song tribute at UCLA quite a while back, so I did not have much to go on. 

The songs I figured he’d play he did, except for “Beeswing” which despite calls from the crowd he did not do. One errant man shouted out late on for “The Barbie Song,” to the singer’s befuddlement; the heckler meant Brittany Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again.” This had been covered by him on 1000 Years, and he playfully did it as if Pepe Le Pew first a bit and then all the way seriously. It reminded me of how interpretation makes a song memorable. Thompson forces us to hear, even if some there may have not, the illusion, and the label we attach to artistic quality and not pop quantity. If Thompson had written this, or if it was a forgotten Cecil Sharp archival track from Northumbrian pit chants he’d excavated or refurbished, would we have admired Thompson's command of the idiom's  lyrical terseness, his ear, his ability to sum up the vagaries of flirtation, love, and abandonment? 

Certainly, Thompson can capture these amorous and/or cruel tensions well. He had the crowd sing the chorus of one of his many put-down songs, “Crawl Back,” and I am sure given his own choppy navigation of emotional waters hinted at in another, more wistful admission that despite his infidelities and betrayals, “I’m saving the good stuff for you,” he sang to his latest love.

A highlight for me of his show was his promised “Beret of Randomness.” He had an audience member plucked (female naturally, and this show as Fan #1 behind us remarked if correctly for a guitar god had a large amount of the distaff sex present—I credit Thompson’s humor and affable snarkiness as well as an almost cuddly manner that he sets off against his “this is one of the most depressing songs I ever wrote. Well, all of them are depressing, aren’t they?” patter) from row one where the $75 seats were. (Concerts even at the humblest venues mimic plane boarding where first class precedes steerage.) She drew out a slip with an album. Luckily it was not Mirror Blue or You? Me? Us? (I admit I never got around to one of his last, Sweet Warrior, although The Old Kit Bag had its moments once he left the Hollywood-lavish production of Mitchell Froom which to me had swamped his spare music with effects. He has returned post-Froom tellingly to stripped-down, live-in-studio or acoustic selections. His later albums from his California residence largely lacked the exciting testiness of his English ones, testimony I bet to Santa Monica's lotus-land's zephyrs.)

Three pre-announced choices were played from the slip indicating one of his albums. I admit it only went as far back on his site as Liege and two out of those three tunes from it were not my favorites. He lasted only one album post-Denny before he, too, fled Fairport’s increasingly determined folk-revival direction in 1970. I liked his combination of English brass-band and busker styles that deepened the timbre of his also overlooked 1972 first solo LP, Henry the Human Fly, legendarily the worst-selling Warner Bros release from the days of the marketing madness of those Loss Leader samplers (Shlangers! Perhaps my introduction to Yiddishisms? Liner notes by Dr. Demento) and the days when that label at its eclectic and doubtless doobie-inflected phase signed real singer-songwriting talent in the otherwise woeful days of the early 70s in L.A.

An offbeat selection that Dr. Demento might have played, Thompson joyfully regaled us with. Frank Lesser, of Guys and Dolls fame, penned a ditty from the 40s, full of hepcat jive, summing up Hamlet. Thompson's jaunty quality demonstrated itself wittily: "Better muzzle that Great Dane!"

Anyway, solo, speaking of when his own theatrically British strains began to enter his music if in a touch of brass band accompaniment, I like Thompson’s early 70s period best, Henry, and then with Linda Pour Down Like Silver and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. These balance the Henry astringency and growing social commentary with the couple’s allusions to their new Sufi Muslim faith and, even if the rail-thin, long-faced (I should talk) Thompson looked better shaggy than shorn, the harmonies that for a while enriched their position as leaders of mature British folk-rock. 

This too-sharp an apex, documented in Rob Wright’s Electric Eden (PopMatters and Amazon US reviews), ended too soon as punk and tragedy combined to dent the charts and the hopes. Any folk-rock pedigree is incestuous. Fairport’s bassist founded Steeleye Span (another My Top Five, Please to See the King) before perversely he left to turn to reviving the English folk tradition. A revamped Steeleye forged an electrified amalgam of rock and folk to diminishing results by the later 70s. Denny fatally fell down the stairs; Linda and Richard’s disintegrating marriage led to Shoot Out the Lights, accomplished for its song craft and guitar intensity but far from WB singer-songwriter L.A. '70s comforting as her vocals were spliced from bits of her shattered voice into a mournfully great album that I leave more to be respected from a distance than returned to over and over. It was a pleasure to hear the comparatively lighter (!) track from it, “Wall of Death,” as his first encore. 

That beret’s random slip opened to Bright Lights, and so “End of the Rainbow” (“one of the most depressing…”), the title track, and then “The Great Valerio” featured as fitting highlights. I liked the rest of the set. Thompson looked fit and in good form, entertaining himself as I always wondered how a minstrel must with the same songs every night for decades. He did not vary them much as I could tell, but Bob felt he’d taken more liberties than usual in concert with them. The pace of the show moved smartly and it ended precisely two hours on. For me, too sensitive to hearing, I welcomed no over-amplification and the chance to see as well as hear one of the world’s best guitarists (and a great singer) not in a muddy field or on my usual manner of transmission, a tinny car stereo with my CDs.  

Thompson spoke tellingly of Cropredy’s impending arrival, and the 45th anniversary of Fairport. He mused about getting on stage with his former bandmates. Half an hour of what we Irish might call grand craic, and then you’d remember why you’d left the band, he pointedly remarked. He also appealed for us to seek out Sandy Denny’s legacy, and I found this touching. He played her “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” Like Denny, I figure Thompson's paid more bills by others covering him. He told us how Americans had taken fifteen years to rediscover Nick Drake, so….(Thompson had contributed to Drake’s albums, Denny’s, and countless more, he refrained from adding, so I will.)

The genial audience certainly liked joining in on the metaphorically middle-fingered “Crawl Back.” They cried out for the usual tunes I’d predicted he’d play or they’d yell. It was a solid set, and certainly Thompson has many to choose from, although unlike say, Dylan, he does not mix it up too much as to arrangements. The solo nature of this performance, however, allowed us to attend to his vocals better. These carry a bleak, resonant quality. He may not have aspired to sing as much as play, given the early talents that Fairport featured (originally a male and female vocalist), but he suits song to voice nimbly.

As anticipated, the mini-saga and fretted workout “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” earned the loudest applause. I appreciated learning how “Walking the Long Miles Home” came from his teenaged trek twelve miles to farthest suburban London when the buses had ended, the tubes had closed, and he’d seen the second show by The Who. I was happiest with the close of his second encore, “Dimming of the Day” from Pour Down. To me, that plaintive appeal to the bonds of affection forged against the coming of night remains for me his signature statement from an eminent career. I wish him well.

(Wikipedia. Photo by Tom Adams via Thompson's BeesWeb site. Not that concert 6-29-12, but same dress sense, same guitar, same beret.)


Mike Maginot said...

By the time I discovered WB Loss Leaders mail order listing on an album sleeve, they were all out of SCHLAGERS! and most of the other samplers in the series. This discography might amuse you:
The first time I heard the word "schlages", was from the mouth of Ringo Starr. It's Mr. Starkey's birthday today. Love that old schlager.

Fionnchú said...

A great link, Mike. I used to look at these in the racks at the Wherehouse (or Music Plus?) at the mall where I hung out and then worked at next to Santa Anita Racetrack. The only one I ever bought--given my less AOR tastes--was "Troublemakers," but I think regular WB releases often had a pitch for the Loss Leaders series on the paper sleeves of the records, I dimly recall. Great ad copy, and that label tended to take in the more adventurous and artistic, "FM-oriented" acts of the 70s, to their credit in that often justly maligned decade of dross and dreck. Still, some good music survived, as these tracks attest.