Oh what a joy it is to be a Richard Thompson fan. We live in a world where there is so very little upon which we may rely, with many of us choosing to look for some semblance of meaning or reassurance through the eyes and ears of the ‘artiste’. Historically though, these bastions of illumination are often notoriously bad at adhering to schedule we demand of them. After the initial blast of creativity, many fail to produce further works worthy of our time or money, often spending decades wallowing in former glories, leading to the regrettably familiar years of inactivity or even, self-destruction. How refreshing it is then, to find Richard Thompson, well into his fourth decade in the music game, still managing to produce fresh and challenging music every couple of years or so.
Thompson arrives in Birmingham to promote the newly released ‘Electric’ album. As the title would suggest, this is certain to involve a torrent of amplification, and fans turning up expecting to hear a Thompson retrospective are sure to be disappointed. The likelihood of droves of his fans flying from the stalls at the sound of yet another ‘new one’ is not something Thompson would expect or perhaps, even bother him. Indeed, Thompson has stated in the past that his desire to evolve and seek out new musical experiences is something that is paramount to him as a musician, “style morphs into cliché, and so you have to challenge the audience and they will challenge you back.”
Thompson approaches the stage wearing his favourite attire: trademark beret, dressed in black and grey tones, with his Stratocaster hanging lifeless until the moment Thompson and his two cohorts (Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums) break into the thundering opener ‘Stuck on the Treadmill’. This song is taken from the Electric album and will set the tone for the evening. At least half of tonight’s set will compromise of songs from taken the new album.
The threesome weave in and out of each other with phenomenal dexterity. Indeed, special mention must go to the octopus like drummer Michael Jerome, who for the duration of the night; wows the symphony hall audience with his seamless ripple of limbs. Only later do I discover the reasons as to why Jerome is able to produce such an unusual visual display. Incredibly, Jerome is both double-jointed and ambidextrous.
The nest two songs are ‘Sally B’ and ‘Salford Sunday’, the latter, a song that harks back to the Salford Quays, not as they are today, the shimmering media city, but the dirty industrial period that Thompson recalls from his Fairport performances in the late sixties. At this point, Thompson jokingly claims he is just getting “the new stuff out of the way” before the old favourites come out. He is wonderfully self-deprecating and condemning in one fell swoop when referring to the new album. When referring to the Electric album, Thompson quips about it being the album that nobody in the audience has bought.
After the wistful ‘Salford Sunday’, the energy levels are propelled upwards by ‘Haul Me Up’ taken from the album ‘Dream Attic’. This song is the first of the evening that really demands the vocal accompaniment of all three musicians. Sadly, it is not until the encore that the backing vocals are fully audible. Therefore, it is with great frustration that Prodaniuk’s impassioned accompaniment is lost beneath the layers of sound generated by the other instruments.
‘Can’t Win’ sees Thompson make a return to one of his most fertile sources of inspiration: that of the vulnerable and downtrodden. This theme is further referenced with the glorious ‘Good Things Happen to Bad People’. This song is easily the standout performance of the night as Thompson’s voice borders on a Bryan Ferry impersonation during the unusually catchy chorus.
Before the night is out, Thompson and his band lead the Birmingham audience in a sing-a-long with the wonderful ‘Little Sally Ratchet’. After this, the band returns for two encores which includes an epic performance of ‘Tear stained Letter’. On reflection, it is wholly apparent that both the band and the ‘paying punters’ have had a night to remember. The good news for the Thompson fans gathered here tonight is that knowing Thompson; it will not be too long before he is back in Birmingham wowing them with his prowess.
Review by Chris Curtis
Photographs by Andy Whitehouse