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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Richard Thompson

eclectic reviews and opinions

Richard Thompson (with Joyce Anderson)

30 October 2003

Nock Middle School Auditorium (Newburyport, Massachusetts)

Richard Thompson has been a virtuoso guitar player and a songwriter of the first rank for a long, long time. A friend of mine who's a bit of a jazz-snob once said that Thompson was the only "rock" guitar player he had any interest in ever hearing play unaccompanied, and this set afforded Thompson plenty of opportunities to strut the stuff that impresses the jazz crowd. He has nearly the best tempo control of any rock guitarist I've seen perform; it's particularly arresting how he often continues to play quarter- and 8th-note bass parts on the guitar's lower two strings while holding, and even bending, notes on the top four. He also tends to use far more complex progressions and chord voicings than the vast majority of rock players. But unlike some other guitarists with a reputation for being smart and twisty -- King Crimson's Fripp or Belew, say -- Thompson remains primarily interested in pop songwriting rather than in building structures over which to improvise. Even the be-bop flavored (and hilarious, not to mention informative) "Alexander Graham Bell" had a hummable chorus for every dizzy lead run; Thompson almost always suits the picking to the tune, rather than the tune to the picking.

Given that, it's perhaps surprising that what stunned me most this time around was Thompson's voice, which was markedly better than it was when I last saw him four or five years ago. His breath control was impressive; his pitch was consistently on, his tone and phrasing were powerful and versatile. Near the end of the two-hour show I was just beginning to imagine I could hear traces of fatigue in his voice, but only barely.

It's also unusual for artists who've been around as long as Thompson to continue releasing material that's as strong as the records they built their careers on, but the handful of songs from Thompson's recent The Old Kit Bag -- especially the the intense and mournful "A Love You Can't Survive", the ominous "Outside of the Inside" and the uncharacteristically hopeful "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen," were comfortable next to classics like "Wall of Death" and the obligatory "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." During the encore, a significant minority of the audience was clamoring for more selections from the new record -- offhand, I can't remember that ever happening with an artist who had more than a handful of records to draw from. It's a truism that songs from the several Thompson albums rather busily produced by Mitchell Froom often sound better live, but even "Crawl Back (Under my Stone") and "Uninhabited Man" from his next-most-recent effort, Mock Tudor, were speeded up and stripped down to reveal more fury and muscle than they displayed on record.

Singer/songwriter guitarist/violinist Joyce Andersen opened with a mostly-solo set with her husband Harvey Reid joining her on slide guitar. The audience was respectful, but opening for someone of Thompson's stature is clearly both a blessing and a curse. Andersen was competent on her three instruments, but her compositions were pedestrian alongside Thompson's.

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