Richard Thompson at Millennium Park and Space


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.


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


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:

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Nick Lowe at Space


With his last several albums, Nick Lowe has settled into a new phase of his career: more of a mellow crooner than the pub rock and power pop guy he was during his youth. But one thing that hasn’t changed is Lowe’s ability to write perfect little songs, with smart and witty lyrics and catchy melodies, all within the bounds of what’s considered the traditional pop-song format. Lowe’s latest string of records is just adding more depth to his already deep catalog of unforgettable tunes.

Lowe was alone with his acoustic guitar on the stage Wednesday night (Oct. 2) at Space in Evanston. A few simple, strummed chords and his voice were all he needed. Well, that and his personality. What a charming and gracious fellow.

After playing his first two songs, Lowe looked down at his set list and said his “program” for the night included some of his old hits. “They are surrounded by what you might call my lesser-known pieces,” he said. “I want to apologize in advance if I don’t play your favorite.” There was no need for him to apologize, of course; yes, I can think of some favorite tunes he didn’t play, but what he did play was wonderful.

Lowe interjected some humorous asides during “Trained Her to Love Me,” in which the narrator (presumably not the real-life Nick Lowe) outlines his method of getting women to fall in love with him just so he can break their hearts. “Oh, that’s unforgivable,” Lowe said, to laughter in the crowd.

Lowe’s forthcoming release is a Christmas record, and when he introduced a song from him, he hastened to say: “I can feel you all tensing up, but don’t worry — I’m going to play you the least Christmasy tune.” And in fact, the song — “A Dollar Short of Happy,” which he co-wrote with Ry Cooder — sounded just fine in October.

Lowe added an intro with an Elvis Presley-esque flourish to “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll),” freshening up a song that had started to seem like a cliche after all of the radio play it got.

As he started his encore, Lowe remarked that Chicago was the first place where his old band Rockpile “took off,” which led him to play one of his songs with that band, “When I Write the Book.” Then came his classic, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which was just as touching as ever. And finally, a new song, “Tokyo Bay,” which he has been playing in concerts since last year.

SET LIST: Where’s My Everything / Heart / Long Limbed Girl / Ragin’ Eyes / Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day / She’s Got Soul / Lately I’ve Let Things Slide / Has She Got a Friend? / Trained Her to Love Me / I Live on a Battlefield / A Dollar Short of Happy / Cruel to be Kind / Raining Raining / Traveling Light / Stoplight Roses / Sensitive Man / Somebody Cares for Me / House for Sale / Without Love / I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll) / ENCORE: When I Write the Book / (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding / Tokyo Bay

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Lowe’s old friend Paul Cebar opened for him Wednesday. (He also opened the last Nick Lowe concert I saw, several years ago at FitzGerald’s.) Cebar’s breezy acoustic songs were a good match with Lowe’s; he played his originals as well as a couple of covers: Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” and Lowe’s “Crying in My Sleep.” It’s unusual to see an opening act cover a song by the headliner, but Cebar remarked, “This is one he doesn’t do, so I can do it.” Lowe has songs to spare.


Billy Bragg at Space


“Americana is country music for people who like the Smiths,” Billy Bragg said during his concert Friday (Sept. 17) at Space in Evanston. A witty remark, with more than a bit of truth to it. He was defending himself against some critics who expressed consternation that he has gone country with his latest record, Tooth & NailAs he pointed out, there’s always been a bit of country in his music. But it was undeniable that a few of Bragg’s older songs are sounding more like alt-country than they did in their original incarnations, now that he’s playing them with a band that includes the twang of pedal steel guitar.

During other comments Friday, he summarized his recent article for the Guardian, which appeared under the headline, “Billy Bragg: whisper it … but the British invented Americana.” That is a bit of an exaggeration, but Bragg is correct in touting the role that Brits have played over the decades in reviving and/or revising American musical traditions.

If it isn’t already apparent, Bragg spent a hell of a lot of time talking during his concert, which he is wont to do. And Bragg might be accused of preaching to the choir, rousing his liberal listeners with his leftist lectures. (Confounded by the Tea Party’s resistance to Obamacare, Bragg said, “Nobody in my country dies for want of proper health care.”) But Bragg comes across as heartfelt, genuine and smart, and not the least bit boring as he delays his songs to engage his audience in conversation.

The songs from Tooth & Nail sounded great, especially Bragg’s Biblical sermon, “Do Unto Others.” At the midpoint of the show, Bragg’s band left the stage — for a contractually required tea break, he said — leaving Bragg alone on the stage for a mini solo concert within the concert. He took the opportunity to play almost the entirety of his 1983 recording debut, the seven-song EP Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy — every song from the record, that is, except for “A New England,” which he played later with the full band. After playing the song “Richard,” which mentions a “titanic love affair,” Bragg dedicated it to the late Jay Bennett, who played in the bands Wilco and Titanic Love Affair. And the mini-set prompted Bragg to reminisce about playing at Chicago’s Cubby Bear in 1985, where a fan sitting on a toilet in the men’s room offered to shake his hand.

Whether he’s talking about politics and singing about romance, Bragg showed once again that he’s eminently worth hearing.


L99A9317 L99A9411 L99A9486 L99A9546Friday’s opening act, singer-songwriter Joe Purdy, entertained with his acoustic folk songs in the Dylan tradition, sardonically observing that his tunes are invariably downbeat. “And now I’m going to play another sad song,” he remarked at one point, prompting someone in the crowd to call out, “Anything happy?” He replied, “Anything happy? Yeah, the drinks I’m going to have after.”

Richard Thompson at Evanston Space

For a long time now, Richard Thompson has been one of the best singer-songwriter-guitarists around, and if you’ve ever seen him live, you’ll know that he’s also an affable raconteur with a charming personality and a quick wit. It was a great pleasure to see Thompson again on Monday night (Sept. 12) at Evanston Space, an intimate venue. And I was fortunate to get a chance to speak with Thompson earlier by phone, for an interview that appeared in Pioneer Press.

As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. When Thompson plays solo acoustic shows, such as this one, he shows just how much music one player can make with that instrument. It almost seems like magic when Thompson continues playing chords, bass lines or counter-melodies as he solos on top. He had only one guitar with him on the stage all night. It was all he needed.

Thompson played songs from throughout his career, going back to his early days in Fairport Convention for a tribute to Sandy Denny with “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” (“It was a band of no great consequence,” he said. “We just invented folk rock. Well, bits of it.”) He also played songs from his years recording with his then-wife Linda, including “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and “I Want to See the Bright Lights.” And Thompson played what I believe are two new songs, one that included the lines “Northern girls will gut you” and “In the dream I’m running,” and another with the line, “Good things happen to bad people.”

The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting: “The Ghost of You Walks” and the sinister “Hope You Like the New Me.” And Thompson’s classic song “Pharaoh” seemed more topical than ever. Introducing it, he said, “This is my song of financial paranoia. Join me. Wallow in it for a while.”

He played a few of the songs requested by audience members, including “Why Must I Plead?” and “Tear Stained Letter,” although he noted that he needed some help on that one, since he was lacking a band. Glancing around the stage and shrugging, he remarked, “I told the band, ‘9 o’clock. Heathrow…’” One side of the room sang the vocal harmonies and the other side struggled to duplicate the song’s sax section. After hearing the audience’s first attempt at singing, Thompson instructed us further: “Harmony. That’s when notes join in a pleasing manner.”

Although Thompson has no shortage of his own songs, he played a few covers, including Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie.” Afterward, Thompson said being in Chicago inspired him to play it. “I didn’t want to play that song, but I could feel the pull, Chess Studio pulling me.” Later, just as I was thinking about shouting out a request for Frank Loesser’s song “Hamlet (Dog Eat Dog in Denmark),” which I’d heard Thompson play in concert before, he did it. And near the end of the set, he obliged when another audience member called out for his version of Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again” — a cover that started out as part of Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music project. Yes, it’s a bit of a joke, but it’s also further proof that Thompson can play just about anything.

Bathsheba Smiles
The Ghost of You Walks
Northern Girls (new song?)
Johnny’s Far Away
1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Little Queenie (Chuck Berry cover)
Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
Hope You Like the New Me
Good Things Happen to Bad People (new song?)
Why Must I Plead
Hamlet (Dog Eat Dog in Darkness) (Frank Loesser song)
Down Where the Drunkards Roll
Tear Stained Letter
Oops! I Did It Again (Britney Spears cover)
Cooksferry Queen
One Door Opens
Dimming of the Day