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:
These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.
1. ALABAMA SHAKES (Dec. 15 at Hideout). “Wow, did Alabama Shakes live up to the hype. This was the most joyous, energetic and lively musical performance I’ve seen in 2011, and a Hideout crowded with enthusiastic fans was the perfect place to see and hear Alabama Shakes. … The crowd was shouting for more at the end — even if it meant playing some of the same songs over again.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, ‘Why is it so hard to make it in America?’ As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.
5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)
7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)
8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)
9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)
10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)
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.
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)
One Door Opens
Dimming of the Day