August 29, 2010
Recently, we went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for the last gig of the Prescott Park Arts Festival season. Performers play on an outdoor stage beside the Piscataqua River in downtown Portsmouth. The tide was ebbing at amazing speed when we arrived. The Memorial Bridge, a vertical-lift bridge, rose to allow passage downriver of the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company ferry. Like others in the audience, we ate our picnic supper as the declining evening sun tinged the industrial buildings over the water in Kittery, Maine. Portsmouth is attractive: part no-nonsense port dominated by the Portsmouth Navy Yard, part narrow street colonial clapboard domesticity. It looks its picturesque best on a warm summer evening.
The opener was Scots-Canadian singer-songwriter David Francey, his own show having been rained out two nights earlier. Clearly talented, he seemed a little ill at ease to be preceding the main act, which was scarcely surprising, given who that was to be. After apologizing for having delayed the main performance for as much as twenty minutes with his genial patter and his renditions of such agreeable songs as “Paper Boy,” and “Broken Glass,” Francey and his local sideman departed. The stage, dominated by the “olde London towne” set of Peter Pan, playing on other evenings, was readied for the principal event. This meant no more than the careful placement of a mic stand, a stool for a water bottle and a tin of talc, and two monitor speakers. Then, with no fanfare at all, a tall, slender figure in black — jeans, shirt, and beret — slipped almost self-deprecatingly onstage. Suddenly realizing that the man with the Lowden guitar was actually standing in right front of them, the audience rose to applaud and cheer. He plugged in and sang.
Richard Thompson is simply the best at what he does. He doesn’t bother to ingratiate himself with his audience from the outset. His comments on the beauty of the evening and the congeniality of the city (he has played in so, so many) were almost mockingly peremptory. He gets on with what everyone has come to hear and see him do. He knows. He ought to, after over forty years performing.
His early work remains as robust as his newest. “Genesis Hall” from the 1969 Fairport Convention album Unhalfbricking came across as fresh as “Stumble On” from his new album, Dream Attic. By the time he got to “Genesis Hall” he was overcoming the dead hand of bound-to-be-disappointed expectation by establishing a genuine rapport with the audience. He referred to vinyl records as being as big as he could stretch out his arms. “Genesis Hall was a squat cleared violently,” he told us. “We used to compose songs to protest such things. We still do.” He does, but his critique of financial irresponsibility on Wall Street on his latest album, “The Money Shuffle,” is not among his finest.
Thompson is best at gloom. The high point of his set was “Dimming of the Day,” inevitably evoking his former wife and musical partner, Linda Thompson, with whom he did some of his very best work. She sang it on their 1975 album, Pour Down Like Silver. He also gave a particularly raucous and jangly performance of the title song of their first album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, released the previous year. “That’s five gloomy songs in a row,” he quipped, before giving a wonderful rendition of the hilarious Frank Loesser song “Hamlet,” his only number by another writer.
As a solo performer, Thompson relies solely on his own abilities, with just an occasional burst of subtle echo on the voice, and his guitar equalizer highly scooped (the highs and lows loud, the middle range diminished). On his own he is more exciting than many a band using a full range of instruments and electronic effects. No wonder. His musicianship is both technically and emotively astonishing. He gave several encores, imploring the patience of his sound engineer with a hand signal before the last. Then he walked off. No fuss, none of the embellishments of a superstar. He’s beyond all that. He’s simply the best.