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The Richard Thompson Band: Live in Providence

John Kelman By

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The Richard Thompson Band
Live in Providence
In the USA: SpinART Records
In Canada: True North Records

There are few singer/songwriters who have garnered the kind of widespread critical acclaim for such a lengthy career as Richard Thompson. From his earliest days with the British folk/rock band Fairport Convention, it was clear that Thompson was not only a uniquely talented guitarist with a distinctive style that owed as much to the Uillean pipes playing of Billy Pigg as it did the rock and roll of Chuck Berry, but also a songwriter with a dark vision, a writer who John Mellencamp admits could say more in one line than Mellencamp could in a whole song.

But as respected as he is by fellow songsmiths, and even though his '82 recording Shoot Out the Lights was listed by Rolling Stone as one of the top ten albums of the '80s despite it selling only 60,000 copies at the time, Thompson has eluded the kind of popular acclaim that he deserves. Perhaps it's because of his penchant to look at the dark side of life. Songs like "The Great Valerio," "When I Get to the Border" and "Jealous Words" are so dark that if his music weren't so compelling they'd be almost too painful to handle-and even so, much of Thompson's music is clearly not the kind to get a party going. When Thompson toured with his then ex-wife Linda Thompson in support of Shoot Out the Lights, quite possibly the darkest examination of marital breakup ever recorded, the emotional discord between the two onstage was palpable; and yet it was exactly this contention that made it so vital, so real. And in the ensuing years, Thompson's live performances may not have the same degree of visible conflict; but he still makes each performance almost a cathartic experience.

While Thompson's previous live concert recording, Across a Crowded Room, recorded in '85 in Ottawa, Canada, has been long-deserving of release on DVD, fans old and new will be just as happy with his new concert DVD, Live in Providence, featuring old friend Pete Zorn on horns, mandolin, guitar and vocals, and relative newcomers Rory McFarlane on electric and upright bass and drummer/percussionist Earl Harvin. The result is a 13-song, 90-minute performance that at times bristles with excitement, and at others is vivid in its poignancy.

While touring in support of his latest release, The Old Kit Bag, Thompson digs back in his extensive repertoire, performing tunes from albums including Shoot Out the Lights, Hand of Kindness, Daring Adventures, Amnesia, Rumour and Sigh and Mock Tudor. The band navigates Thompson's sometimes enigmatic tunes with verve, although drummer Harvin could, at times, stand to be a little more straightforward, à la Dave Mattacks or Gerry Conway, both of whom have recorded and toured with Thompson extensively, and demonstrate a stronger ability to get deep inside the groove. Still, despite Harvin's occasional overplaying he's a solid enough player, and brings a sense of excitement to tunes like "Man in Need" and "Jealous Words."

Zorn is the perfect compliment to Thompson, with a vocal range that allows him to cover a broad range of harmonies, from the highs of the Zydeco-informed "Tear Stained Letter" to the lows of "Crawl Back," where the group segues neatly into the old Desmond Dekker hit, "The Israelites." And McFarlane keeps everything rooted, with a non-intrusive yet absolutely essential style that makes him more felt than heard.

But the star of the show is clearly Thompson, whose voice and playing has never been better. His vocal control, which has sometimes been a little challenged in the past in live performance, has simply gotten better with age. And his electric guitar playing continues to stagger, from the simple theme doubled with Zorn's acoustic on "Man in Need" to his outrageous and outré solos on the bleak yet powerful "Shoot Out the Lights." And when Thompson picks up an acoustic guitar for the lightly swinging "Al Bowlly's in Heaven" and, more notably, the folksy solo piece, "1952 Vincent Black Lightening," his ability to combine the traditional with the modern is in clear evidence.

Along with the Providence performance, the release is chock full of extras, including gorgeous renditions of the celtic-informed "The Choice Wife" and the ballad "Just the Motion" from '81; a powerful performance of "Man in Need" from '84 with his short-lived little big band; three tunes from the Across a Crowded Room concert video; and performance with his acoustic trio from an '01 Austin City Limits broadcast. All-in-all over 30 minutes of bonus footage that traces Thompson's career from the early '80s to the present. Time may have made him a little lighter on the top hair-wise, but watching these bonus clips in sequence one cannot but wonder at his remarkable evolution as a player, writer and singer.


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