The couple in the opera box next to me seemed to be getting on quite well for the first third of the show. By all appearances Richard Thompson’s performance was acting on them like Spanish fly. The Larry David look-alike casually fondled his companion, a younger, more provocative blond, who snaked about appreciatively.
Then, upon returning from a restroom break, the woman was confronted by her well-heeled but nebbishy date. The details of her offense were sketchy, but the upshot was he was hurt by the fact she had taken so long to freshen up, an act that proved her indifference to Richard Thompson’s intense gifts. After some heated words, the gentleman received a slap in the face and the woman beat a retreat for a solo tour of the rest of the evening.
While he might want his fans exercising their appreciation in a more positive fashion, this absolutely true exchange illustrates the reverence his fans hold Thompson in. As he displayed in his two hour-plus show at the House of Blues in Chicago, even after more than thirty years as a performer, there is still not another living soul who possesses the same combination of songwriting genius and jaw-dropping musicianship. And few have his uncompromising dedication to a creative voice. His latest disc, Old Kit Bag, finds him in newly inspired, with renewed insight and unabated wit; a disc that will surely not challenge 50 Cent in the charts.
As he took the stage, impossibly dressed in his now trademark Kangol cap, black leather pants and black T-shirt, Thompson was clearly at home on the stage. Fronting a revised four piece line-up, Thompson kicked things off with a high-octane rock ’n’ roll rendition of “Tear Stained Letter.” Immediately, the punch of the band was noticeable, particularly drummer Earl Harvin’s hard-hitting attack. A track from the new disc followed, “Gethsemene,” setting a contrast with it’s brooding, lumbering groove, and establishing a set-list that favored the new album.
The set touched on themes that will be familiar to longtime followers: his distain for fundamentalists of any stripe (“Outside Of The Inside”), the bitter ravages of love (on a particularly impassioned “Missie How You Let Me Down,” accented by multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn’s evocative flute), and his fascination with obscure and ancient music (as with his incendiary solo reading of the 16th Century Italian court dance tune, “I Knew A Lucky Fellow”). Aside from a funky reinvention of “I Want To Se The Bright Light’s Tonight” (given an extra boost by Rory McFarlane’s supple bass playing) and a thundering “Shoot Out The Lights,” Thompson explored unusual album tracks from more recent years, hardly venturing back beyond the early ‘80s for his material. All the while his guitar playing was typically brilliant, with tasteful control that never spilled over into self-indulgence.
Where others might opt for a favored chestnut or crowd-pleasing cover, Thompson chose to close the show with two more new songs, the sizzling “Jealous Words” and the heartbreaking “Words Unspoken, Sight Unseen.” It was clear he is an artist still creating and developing. Thankfully his lack of success hasn’t spoiled him.