Seven songs into his thoroughly captivating solo acoustic performance last night at the Kentucky Theatre, Richard Thompson pulled out all the stops.
During Johnny’s Far Away, he drew together such thematic non-sequiturs as ceilidh bands, tropical cruiseliners and marital infidelity and then splattered them across a sea-chanty-style melody.
Oh, yes, did we mention this was also a sing-a-long?
Two tunes later, Thompson cut the yucks for a sobering tale of reluctant departure titled Sunset Song (from 2007’s Sweet Warrior album, as was Johnny’s Far Away). “Wasn’t that a time we had and bless you for it,” he sang over a series of lightly chilled guitar chimes seemingly fashioned for a late October evening. “But I’m a stranger here. I don’t belong.”
For much of his one hour, 50 minute concert, Thompson allowed such narrative extremes to see-saw in an effortless display of British-flavored folk and globally themed material drawn from a career that stems back nearly 43 years.
From the late ‘60s heyday of Fairport Convention came a telling, stoic reading the great Sandy Denny’s poetic postscript Who Knows Where the Time Goes. From last year’s Dream Attic, he uncorked The Money Shuffle, a tale of a hedge fund hawker that preys on the financially gullible. “Enough of the Occupy Wall Street side of things,” Thompson said by way of introduction.
Bringing the years together were characters and situations that defied the ages, from the soldier about to doom his newlywed wife to her second term as a widow in Woods of Darney to the regal but reserved romantics ignited in the show closing Dimming of the Day (the evening’s only nod to Thompson’s ‘70s-era song catalog).
And then there was the guitarwork. In a band setting, Thompson usually favors electric playing, which offers a more immediate and understandably energized overview of his instrumental prowess. Last night’s alone-and-acoustic setting, though, amplified his already-ample guitar cunning.
For instance, an encore reading of Valerie had the guitarist playing bass chords, lead melodies and buoyant harmony lines simultaneously. Similarly arresting were the dark, jazzy turns that emerged during Crawl Back (Under My Stone) almost as counterpoint to vocal wails and echoes that inhabited the song like ghosts.
Thompson never allowed such traits to turn stuffy, however. At 62, he is a confident performer that exhibited a quick, keen wit, whether he was taking jabs at the murky emotive scope of the show-opening She Twists the Knife Again (“I thought I’d start with a happy one”), the historically ghoulish tone of another Fairport gem, Crazy Man Michael (“If somebody dies and then comes back to life, that means I got the verses in the wrong order”) or the still-topical slant of Pharaoh (“Come join me in my paranoia”).
The latter was one of three consecutive songs Thompson played from 1988’s Amnesia. He has been performing similar cluster medleys from one of 17 different albums at each show on his fall tour.
But the evening’s most commanding moment may well have come from music that was altogether new. For Good Things Happen to Bad People, one of two unrecorded songs offered near the concert’s onset, Thompson whipped up a chorus full of the sort of succinct lyrical irony that only a schooled songsmith could muster.
“Good things happen to bad people… but only for awhile.”
Richard Thompson performs again at 7:30 tonight at the Bomhard Theater of the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. Tickets are $28.50 and $38.50. Call (800) 775-7777.