It was at the five-minute mark of an almost impossibly intense guitar solo Tuesday night at the Kentucky Theatre that Richard Thompson’s blend of jaw-dropping technique, tireless performance stamina and remarkably mature rock ’n’ roll nerve came to a boil.
The song that established such a sublime pile-up was Can’t Win, a neglected powerhouse tune from the British songsmith’s 1988 album, Amnesia. After the tune’s dark story line of conformity and mistrust was played out (“we harpoon dreams, we stiletto in the back”), Thompson, 64, let his fingers do some especially wicked strolling. He conjured long, sinewy lines that tightened around the melody like barbed wire. With the highly flexible groove of drummer Michael Jerome and bass guitarist Taras Prodaniuk at work under him, the break yielded an atypically solemn form of guitar shredding. Thompson’s facial expression was stoic to the point of being sphinx-like. But the sound he conjured was like Armageddon. No wonder Jerome bowed his head in a fit of seeming exhaustion at the tune’s conclusion.
And that was just one highlight from the nearly two-hour performance. The true charm behind the concert was that the power trio lineup – and a program highlighted by the first six songs from the new Buddy Miller-produced album, Electric, that generously catered to the format – offered a detailed and insightful look into Thompson’s considerable instrumental strengths.
Admittedly, Thompson long ago established himself as a monster player. But most of his past performances at the Kentucky have focused on the harmonic invention of his acoustic playing. And there were instances last night underscoring that, including the dance-hall shuffle and swing of Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, the dizzying picking in the inevitable encore version of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and the deconstructing groove of Easy There, Steady Now, which Thompson coyly tagged as a “jazz odyssey.”
But between the jagged folk dance structures at the heart of Electric tunes like Sally B and Stony Ground and the dark power chords protruding from Shoot Out the Lights, there were unusually generous glimpses of the amplified Thompson working within jams and improvisations of fearsome richness.
Playfully tagging his power-trio potency as “wimpy,” Thompson purposely addressed convention by opening the second of two encore sections with a cover of the ’60s warhorse anthem Hey Joe that mimicked the chunky rhythmic drive of Jimi Hendrix. But truer fireworks came with the show-closing Tear Stained Letter, a blast of hearty folk/soul fire that was pure unrelenting fun.