Live: Richard Thompson, Carrboro ArtsCenter, 3/9/09

Glen Watson/Sydney Morning Herald

At first glance, it might seem a strange move for Carrboro's ArtsCenter to book singer-songwriter Richard Thompson for their American Roots Series. Thompson, after all, is not only a Brit, but was a founding member of the quintessentially English folk-rock founder Fairport Convention.

Maybe first glances are deceptive. In his solo acoustic performances--he sold out two nights of them at the ArtsCenter--Thompson takes his guitar through a tour of blues, bluegrass, folk, rock, bebop, Vaudeville and free jazz (if you're willing to stretch the imagination). Monday's show was no exception.

RT pulls no punches live; after a light-hearted start, he charged directly into "Walking on a Wire," one of the most wrenching songs in a catalog filled with wrenching songs (later in the night, he delivered several of the others--fan favorite "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," and the heartbreaking "Woods of Darney" and "Beeswing"). Maybe it was the first chill of A/C in the North Carolina spring, but it sent chills down my spine.

With depressing material like this, it's essential to maintain a balance, which RT does with humorous banter and the occasional novelty (the witty if overlong "Hots for the Smarts" and the polka-fied "Don't Sit on My Jimmy Shands"). And no one with a pulse can resist the raucous finish of "Substitute," complete with Townshend-esque leaping.

Still, what makes me go to see Thompson (this is my third time) is the guitarwork. Not unlike the late great Davy Graham or Bert Jansch, he draws a full orchestra of sounds, rhythm and melody, with only him on stage. But he's more inventive than either--he takes greater risks with harmonies, and reaps greater rewards. Playing just an acoustic guitar, he gets a full-bodied sound but manhandles the strings like a Telecaster-slinger.

Not a song was without a jaw-dropping lead, but perhaps the most striking one came late in the set, before a sweet (and apparently rare) but sleepier rendition of Fairport/Sandy Denny staple "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," but after "Vincent" and "Cold Kisses," when my mind was beginning to wander. Then, two verses into "When the Spell is Broken," RT uncorked a ferocious solo--uncorked being the term, as it exploded without warning but with all the excitement of a newly opened bottle. The nod to Townshend was fun, but I'll take this sort of power of Pete's windmills any day.

Caveat emptor: There's one disadvantage to RT concerts: RT fans. I've no problem with a room full of middle-aged mostly men, sporting graying pony tails or, if their hair is failing them, beards--they certainly aren't boisterous and they won't get in your way. But is it really necessary to start shouting for "Vincent" after the third song? Although I'm less with familiar with Front Parlour Ballads (2005), recent releases The Old Kit Bag (2003) and Sweet Warrior (2007) were excellent; it might have been nice to hear some of those songs instead of just a greatest hits show. Usually rabid fan bases like to hear obscurities; this one seems content with the same old. A pity for a musician with such a deep catalog. At least the greatest hits are great.


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