Richard Thompson Band: Live at Celtic Connections

John Kelman By

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Miles DavisThe Richard Thompson Band

Live at Celtic Connections

Eagle Vision


In a career spanning nearly half a century, it wouldn't be unforgivable to put out the occasional duff; with a repertoire of something like 400 original songs, it wouldn't be amiss to expect a writer's pen to dull a tad with age; and with an early career as significant as Richard Thompson's, it wouldn't be beyond the pale to think that the best part of his career is behind him. But as he approaches 63, the British singer/songwriter/guitarist isn't just at the top of his game, he's released one of the best albums of his career with Dream Attic (Shout! Factory, 2010). In an unusual move for Thompson, this baker's dozen of new originals was recorded live, garnering a Grammy nomination in addition to significant critical acclaim. Not too shabby for a writer who, in his humorous, semi-autobiographical 1991 song "Now That I Am Dead" opined:

Now that I have kicked the Rolling Stone has picked my records as the best there be;

Now that I am boxed, they say my music rocks, it's taken on a new appeal; Too bad my genius was discovered after my coffin had been covered.

The truth is that Thompson's classic Shoot Out the Lights (Rhino, 1982), his last record with soon-to-be-ex-wife Linda, was cited as #9 on Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Albums of the 1980s," despite sales that were dwarfed by its surrounding rock icons brethren. But if so many artists who achieved massive visibility early in their careers found it a challenge to, if not better, at least equal their early success, Thompson has chosen a different path. He's never had a million seller to top; instead, year-after-year, he has continued to release albums possessed of sharp insight and profound emotional depth, building a discography and career of remarkable consistency. With the number of well-known songs he's now written, he could at this stage make a perfectly good living as a nostalgia act, touring well-known songs like "Shoot Out the Lights," "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" and "For Shame of Doing Wrong," in addition to songs he wrote as a charter member of seminal British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, like "Meet on the Ledge" and "Now Be Thankful" (the latter co-written with fiddler Dave Swarbrick).

Thompson continues to dig deep into his back catalog when he tours, but he continues to weight just as heavily on new material. It should come as no particular surprise, then, that Live at Celtic Connections, recorded during his 2011 British tour in support of Dream Attic, features plenty of material from an album already road-tested it in its entirety by his crack quintet. The first of the two sets that comprise this two-plus hour performance runs the entire album down, in fact, with the exception of the album's penultimate rocker, "Bad Again," with the balance of the performance a walk through Thompson's entire career—"our greatest hits, small 'h,'" Thompson quips after a smoking set-opener, "The Money Shuffle." Thompson digs right back to his massively unsuccessful solo debut, Henry the Human Fly (Island, 1972) for the Celtic rocker "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away," and moves forward to the thundering, four-on-the-floor "I'll Never Give Up," from Dream Attic's immediate predecessor, Sweet Warrior (Shout! Factory, 2007).

If Thompson has largely left his British musical partners behind—though not entirely, the guitarist being a regular guest at Fairport Convention's annual Cropredy Festival—he's still working with one musician that dates back to Shoot Out the Lights and the legendary tour (or more accurately, according to his supporting musicians, tour from hell) that followed its release with the now-separated Thompsons. Pete Zorn played bass on that record and tour, but by the time of its follow-up, Hand of Kindness (Hannibal, 1983) he'd switched to horns, and in the ensuing years and tours he's turned into a demonic multi-instrumentalist, adding flute, mandolin and guitar to his résumé. Here, in combination with violinist/mandolinist Joel Zifkin, Zorn's sopranino sax manages to sound more like a crumhorn on the visceral "Demon in Her Dancing Shoes," while screaming with grit and grease on tenor on Hand of Kindness' Zydeco-infused "Tear Stained Letter," the ten-minute set closer that's almost as exciting from the living room couch as it must have been at Glasgow's Celtic Connection.

The rest of Thompson's band comes from more recent encounters, though drummer Michael Jerome has been touring with Thompson for over a decade, and was also on the guitarist's last DVD, Live from Austin, TX (New West), released in 2005 but recorded four years earlier. Any drummer filling the shoes of past Thompson drummers like Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks has a challenge ahead of him, but with credentials ranging from The Blind Boys of Alabama and John Cale to Taj Mahal and k.d. lang, Jerome proves capable of finesse on the balladic first encore, "Take Care of the Road You Choose," also from Sweet Warrior, to the unfettered freedom of "Can't Win," the electric guitar workout from 1988's Amnesia that becomes an early highlight of the group's second set here, with Thompson seeming to climax again and again, each time finding yet another peak to attain. Zifkin's background with Kate & Anna McGarrigle—with whom Thompson intersected in the 1970s through The Albion Band—might suggest greater strength in acoustic material like the jazz-informed "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" and trad-centric "One Door Opens," but he's just as capable of incendiary support and soloing on the zydeco-flavored "Haul Me Up." Bassist Taras Prodaniuk's C.V. links him with the country/alt-country scene, having played with Jim Lauderdale, Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams, but his fretless work on "Al Bowlly" and the dark ballad "Stumble On" suggest a broader purview.

The primary emphasis of the Celtic Connection's performance is on Thompson the electric guitarist, and he continues to combine the visceral bends of unsung Uilleann pipes hero Billy Pigg with a surprisingly oblique and distinctly non-pentatonic approach to even the most rocking-and-rolling guitar histrionics—like Mark Knopfler, perhaps, through a jagged prism. Thompson is a rare electric guitarist whose language is so rich that he can manage long solos without ever resorting to cliché, while appreciating the value of every note in more limited space. Where so many guitarists posture, with facial exaggerated facial expressions, Thompson is almost dead-still; and with so many guitarists taking themselves too seriously, Thompson often has his musical tongue firmly planted in cheek, with musical quips popping up when least expected to mirror his similar wit when addressing the crowd.

For those missing Thompson the virtuosic acoustic guitarist—with only a brief acoustic segment featuring "One Door Opens" and "Al Bowlly's" during the main set—two bonus tracks from the 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival help fix that Jones. "The Uninhabited Man," one of the best tracks from Mock Tudor (EMI, 1999), and a modern day sing-along sea-song, Sweet Warrior's "Johnny's Far Away," may have been first heard in full-blown group arrangements, but Thompson's particular strength is his ability to make his songs sound absolutely complete when delivered with nothing but a single guitar and voice.

With a slew of box sets and retrospectives about Thompson in recent years, it might seem that his career is winding down, but with new albums like Dream Attic and incendiary live performances like Live at Celtic Connections, it's no leap to suspect that not only does he have plenty left to say, but the best may well, indeed, be yet to come.

Tracks: The Money Shuffle; Among the Gorse, Among the Grey; Haul Me Up; Burning Man; Here Comes Geordie; Demons in Her Dancing Shoes; Big Sun Falling in the River; Stumble On; Sidney Wells; A Brother Slips Away; If Love Whispers Your Name; The Angels Took My Racehorse Away; Can't Win; One Door Opens; Al Bowlly's in Heaven; I'll Never Give It Up; Wall of Death; Tear Stained Letter; Take Care of the Road You Choose; A Man in Need. Bonus tracks, recorded at 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival: Uninhabited Man; Johnny's Far Away.

Personnel: Richard Thompson: guitar, vocals; Michael Jerome: drums, background vocals; Taras Prodaniuk: bass, background vocals; Pete Zorn: guitars, flute, saxophone, mandolin, background vocals; Joel Zifkin: violin, mandolin, background vocals.

Running Time (feature): 132 minutes. Running Time (bonus): 11 minutes.

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