in performance: the richard thompson band

richard thompson. photo by pamela littky.

richard thompson. photo by pamela littky.

With Richard Thompson’s current band tour bypassing the region entirely, we were left with an option of journeying to Nashville on Saturday evening to catch the veteran British songsmith in full electric splendor.

By that, we refer to the fact that most of Thompson’s performances tend to favor solo acoustic settings. And believe me, that’s great. Few artists create such complete musical atmospheres without accompaniment as Thompson. But when the opportunities arise to catch Thompson in an amped up ensemble mode, they should be seized – especially when they fall on a weekend.

That brings us to this two set performance at the Tennessee’s Performing Arts Center’s sadly underfilled Polk Theatre. The first set was the killer – an entire performance of Thompson’s new Dream Attic album, all 13 songs worth, played from beginning to end. The quintet Thompson has assembled for this tour is the same one that cut the recording at a series of West Coast performances last winter.

Being as Dream Attic, even by Thompson’s terms, in especially British in compositional design, there was an abundance of the guitarist’s typically wry humor, from his explanation of the ceremonial, pre-Christian melodies that percolated through Burning Man (“Do we have any pre-Christians here tonight?”) to the promise of impending polkas at the conclusion of Demons in her Dancing Shoes (“Security, bar the exits”).

During the show’s wildest moments, the folk-rock inspirations became hearty beasts indeed. That was especially true of the lurid murder ballad Sidney Wells, the saga of a serial killing taxi driver that split musical leads between multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn (on soprano saxophone) and violinist Joel Zifkin. But when the narrative was complete, Thompson took the wheel on guitar for a series of mad slip jigs. It was the easily the evening’s most dramatic and boisterously British performance of the night.

The pace downshifted for the noir-like Crimescene, the lovely eulogy A Brother Slips Away and the romantic postscript If Love Whispers Your Name, the latter of which slowly built itself into another fearsome electric lather.

The second set, dubbed by Thompson as “music you actually paid to hear,” indulged in comparatively familiar fare – a late night jazz reverie reading of Al Bowlly’s in Heaven (with Zorn leading the pace on alto sax), a jubilantly poppish Wall of Death and an expansive You Can’t Win with another explosively wiry guitar workout.

But even here there were surprises, like the set-opening Time Will Show the Wiser, an Emitt Rhodes pop nugget that Thompson helped refashion in 1967 for Fairport Convention’s self-titled debut album, and an intensely Eastern One Door Opens driven by drummer Michael Jerome’s lean hand percussion turns on djembe. The latter was one of the evening’s few strolls outside of the dark, droll British folk tradition that has long been such a fertile playground for a songwriter and guitarist who never ceases to astound.

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