It’s no revelation to me that Richard Thompson is one of the best living guitarists, if not the best. And yet, it felt like a revelation on Saturday night as Thompson played a solo that went on and on, bending and shaping itself to higher and higher peaks, during the song “Can’t Win” at the Space nightclub in Evanston — a song he repeated during his free concert Monday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, with a similarly epic solo.
When Thompson recorded the studio version of “Can’t Win” for his 1988 album Amnesia, it was five minutes long, with barely a minute of soloing that fades out at the end. But the live version on the 1993 collection Watching the Dark: The History of Richard Thompson stretched on for more than nine minutes, and now that’s become more typical of the way he plays it in concert. At about the seven-minute mark on Saturday night, I thought I might be watching the best guitar playing I’d ever seen. It was simply remarkable that Thompson could build and sustain so much drama as he sculpted that endless string of notes.
As impressive as Thompson’s virtuosity is, there’s very little showy about his demeanor as he delivers these incredible performances. And while there’s a lot to said for musicians who take a more minimalist approach, reducing a song to its essential elements instead of ornamenting it with endless variations, it’s thrilling to watch the notes pour out of Thompson’s fingers.
Thompson played both nights with the same rhythm section that accompanied him on his 2013 album Electric — bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, both of whom are almost comically exuberant. The set lists were pretty similar, except for the fact that Thompson started off his Millennium Park show with an acoustic set, playing six songs he hadn’t performed on Saturday. “I always wanted to be my own opening act,” he joked.
Saturday’s concert included an impromptu, figured-out-on-the-fly cover of the country classic “The Wild Side of Life,” prompted by some stage banter about its singer, Hank Thompson. And the trio also started to play the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” apparently as a lark, but only the first few bars. On both nights, the encores included a rollicking song I didn’t recognize, which turned out to be a cover of the 1950s song “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” originally written by Otis Blackwell, popularized by Derek Martin and covered by the Who as the B-side to “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” And on Saturday, the group also played the Bob Dylan and the Band classic, “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
As exciting as it was to experience Richard Thompson’s electric guitars on both nights, it was a special treat to hear those acoustic songs in the early set on Monday. Thompson can make his acoustic guitar sound like two or three, soloing or riffing on top of chords and bass lines, and at moments, his complex fingering brought out exotic melodies that evoked Middle Eastern music.
Thompson showed his comedic charm with an extended explanation of his song about a trip on a cruise ship, “Johnny’s Far Away,” from the 2007 album Sweet Warrior. And then he closed his acoustic mini-show with one of his most popular songs, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” On the end of every verse, Thompson stretched out the word “ride,” closing his eyes and turning the word into an almost prayerful drone. And then his fingers flitted across the strings like lightning.
SET LIST: JUNE 14, 2014, SPACE
Stuck on the Treadmill / Sally B / Salford Sunday / For Shame of Doing Wrong / My Enemy / Can’t Win / Saving the Good Stuff for You / The Wild Side of Life / Al Bowlly’s in Heaven / Fork in the Road / Good Things Happen to Bad People / Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? / I’ll Never Give It Up / Wall of Death / If Love Whispers Your Name
ENCORE: Dry My Tears And Move On / Eight Miles High excerpt / Tear Stained Letter
SECOND ENCORE: Wounding Myself / This Wheel’s in Fire / Daddy Rollin’ Stone
SET LIST: JUNE 16, 2014, PRITZKER PAVILION
ACOUSTIC SET: I Misunderstood / Walking on a Wire / Valerie / Genesis Hall / Johnny’s Far Away / 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
ELECTRIC SET: Stuck on the Treadmill / Sally B / Salford Sunday / For Shame of Doing Wrong / My Enemy / Can’t Win / Al Bowlly’s in Heaven / Fork in the Road / Good Things Happen to Bad People / Did She Jump or Was She Pushed? / I’ll Never Give It Up / Wall of Death / If Love Whispers Your Name
ENCORE: Daddy Rollin’ Stone / Tear Stained Letter
Photos from Monday’s concert at Millennium Park: