Richard Thompson concert at Michigan Theater highlighted by new tunes and searing guitar work
Generally speaking, if an artist with a catalog as long and deep as Richard Thompson announces at the beginning of a show that he’ll be concentrating on new material for the first half of his show and will get to the older stuff in the second set, fans start looking at their watches.
photo by Pamela Littky
That Thompson’s audience Tuesday at the Michigan Theater embraced the new material is a testament to both the artist and his loyal following.
That the reward came in the form of a blistering set of new — but hardly untested — tunes is a testament to Thompson and the strength of his catalog, which seems to keep getting better.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Thompson is one of the great guitar slingers in the history of the Stratocaster, or that he was playing an all-too-rare gig backed by his band.
Or, honestly, that the promise of a set of his classic stuff awaited after the intermission.
In truth, the singer-songwriter-guitarist’s opening set proved to be the more satisfying of the two, thanks to a passel of strong, new tunes from Thompson’s new record, “Dream Attic,” and a band that appeared to relish the idea of bringing them to life.
Thompson was his usual charming self, making self-deprecating remarks about the somber nature of his songs. But he mostly let his playing do his talking, getting down to business on crackling new tunes like the opener, “Money Shuffle,” and the plaintive “Demons in Their Dancing Shoes.”
He never put down his electric guitar throughout the first set, imbuing the tunes with the sultry, rounded playing that sets him apart from any other player. Like most of his catalog, the newer stuff runs the gamut from tearful laments to bitter rockers. The strongest of these, “A Brother Slips Away,” is a heartbreaking saga that laments seeing loved ones die.
While it’s always a treat to hear Thompson play any guitar, he’s such an inventive player that hearing him articulate his ideas on the electric guitar is extraordinary. He can simply do more with it than he can an acoustic guitar, which he only picked up twice on Tuesday.
Instead, fans were treated to some guitar solos for the ages, particularly as Thompson tucked into the second set.
And a 10-minute solo during the chestnut “Can’t Win” was the definitive showpiece. Every time one thought he’d exhausted all musical avenues to explore, Thompson peeled off another chorus, raising the stakes and erasing any memory of the previous passage. We’ve seem Richard Thompson play a lot of solos over the years, but none more inventive or jaw-dropping than this one.
The rest of the set was almost a letdown, despite some fine choices, including a somber reading of “Al Bowley’s in Heaven,” which perfectly captured the song’s World War II essence.
Give credit to Thompson’s strong, four-piece band, particularly Pete Zorn, on reeds and rhythm guitar, and the incredible drummer, Michael Jerome, who found interesting ways to propel the tunes without changing their essential nature.
By the time Thompson wrapped up an economical, two-song encore with a decisive “Man in Need,” there wasn’t much left to say or play.
He’d said it — and played it — all with his guitar.
Will Stewart is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.