Singers, songwriters and great guitarists abound, but rarely is so much talent bundled together in the persona of one iconic individual. So when the legendary Richard Thompson performed Tuesday night at the beautiful Bijou Theater, his prolific prowess, traditional English sensibilities and remarkable delivery easily won over the faithful and left them practically begging for more, even two encores on.
The opening set by Kentucky singer Joan Shelley ably set the stage. A lovely singer with a clear voice and echoes of the English folkie that Thompson himself came up with — Sandy Denny in particular — she had the crowd entranced. Little known, but clearly capable of great things, she mentioned that her upcoming self-titled album is produced by WIlco’s Jeff Tweedy, it seemed all too fitting.
Thompson is, by every definition, a legend. Having launched his budding career some 50 years ago as part of the innovative folk rock outfit Fairport Convention — who he referenced with a lovely read of the Sandy Denny-penned classic “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” as well as with a half-hearted plug for their 50th anniversary reunion show in Oxfordshire this August (“Join us if you’sd enjoy sitting in a swamp during a rainstorm”) — he’s still at the peak of his prowess, thanks to a solo career that continues to produce his best work. That was evident Tuesday night as he rolled out one classic after another — the ruggedly resonant “Vicnent Black Lightning,” the tearstained “Dimming of the Day,” a rocking “Misunderstood,” a snide “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” among them.
Both droll and dour by equal measure, dressed in trademark black and wearing his ever-present commander’s cap, he delivered songs both visceral and biting, but also surprisingly poignant as well. He also added several pithy comments between in-between. Concluding a rollicking take on his sole U.K. hit “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” he noted that the song dates back to the early ‘70s.”I can go go further back,” he teased. When someone in audience yelled out “Woodstock” as a reference point, he laughed, feigned bewilderment and replied “I must have missed that.”
While Thompson’s solo shows may lack the visceral pull of his band performances, he still shows remarkable depth and drive even alone on stage. One of the most Distinctive guitarists of his generation — and any generation for that matter — he manages to play both rhythm and fluid leads simultaneously, creating a full bodied sound that more than makes up for the lack of support. Likewise, his rich, robust vocals betray a decided “Englishness” that not only reflects his origins, but also a unique means of singular expression. He squeezed the emotion out of every number, holding notes and drawing out lyrics to the point where they practically soared. Still, he wasn’t without flaws. He cracked up when, on the third song in, he forgot a lyric, forcing him to stop mid song. And when, in “Vincent Black Lightning,” he inserted Knoxville into one of the song’s concluding stanzas, he offered a shy smile. “I love sucking up to my audience,” he joked.
In fact, he couldn’t let the geographical reference go unnoticed. Noting an imagined rivalry between Knoxville and Nashville, he asked the audience, “Do you hate Nashville or love it? They’re a pretentious bunch.”
The crowd chuckled at this knowing nod to the state’s wide ranging expanse, but sat rapt during the songs, swaying intently, leaning into each verse, knowing full well they were in the presence of a singular artist whose ability to completely captivate an audience can’t and shouldn’t be underestimated. And while his two encores failed to include this reviewer’s personal favorite, “Galway to Graceland” (another obvious Tennessee reference, this one missed), it seemed picky even to complain. So yes, Richard, if you’re going to appear at that swampy, rain-soaked festival in Oxfordshire this August, we’ll find a way to be there as well.