Thursday, March 15, 2007

Razor Dance

Wednesday night at Sings Like Hell at the Lobero, opening act Eliza Gilkyson summed up the evening she shared with Richard Thompson with a line from one of her songs, as she sang about "a little damage and a little grace." That's the wire Thompson has walked for decades now (at one point he even made a joke about "I was in a band once, you know; I was thinking the other day that was twenty years ago, but now that other day was twenty years ago"); he was a punk in folkie's clothing even before Jeffrey Hyman and John Cummings beat on a brat with a baseball bat. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and his dry as a gin martini Brit wit, Thompson takes over a theater--you end up spending time just wondering how he makes so much sound. Part of it is he can pick and strum at the same time--I'm not a guitarist, so can't explain the technique, but I'd have to guess most guitarists couldn't explain it either, not fully. No matter, every song offers up something strumptious.

It doesn't hurt he has that 40 year catalog of brilliant songs to draw from, either, and is willing to go even further back, playing the Italian song "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo" from 1590 or so (he joked about avoiding songs from the Black Death, which weren't very interesting anyway) and, fittingly, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," the Sandy Denny tune that Fairport Convention recorded on Unhalfbricking. Otherwise, the song selection was telling--nothing from his last two studio albums Old Kit Bag and Front Parlour Ballads, but a trio from his last best CD Mock Tudor, and, as a thrill for the old time fans (and aren't we almost all) two songs both from 1974's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (a rousing version of the title tune and a brittle, beautiful "Down Where the Drunkards Roll") and 1982's Shoot Out the Lights ("Wall of Death" and "Walking on a Wire"). For my money "Walking on a Wire" has to be one of the best songs of all-time, and while part of its recorded magic is that lovely ache that is Linda Thompson's vocal, live Richard sings it well, too--it's more brusque, of course, but playing the slash and howl guitar parts on an acoustic softens the music, so in essence the dynamic flips and leaves the song the most tuneful of laments. He did it as the second song in his set.

I guess Thompson is exhibit A in why you can't have grace without a bit of damage--you gotta sin to be saved and all that. Still, despite his clever between song patter that often zings--when one audience member shouted out, "Play the beeswing song," he didn't miss a second and replied, "It's called 'Beeswing,'" then didn't play it--there's a gentleness that's as powerful as the bends and wails he can get out of his guitar. He finally closed the long show with "Galway to Graceland," a tale of a woman who goes to Memphis to be with the King. She could be the object of derision; she could be a mawkish figure. But the gorgeous melody gives this woman such dignity, she becomes any dreamer thinking music might save her, and Richard Thompson does. I know it might be too much to say he does the same for all of us, but for at least a couple hours last night, he sure might have.

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