Richard Thompson :: 04.19.05 :: Texas Union Theater :: Austin, TX
A few days ago, songwriting and guitar-playing thoroughbred Richard Thompson performed for a sold-out crowd at the Texas Union Theater on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. For close to two hours, he delighted the crowd with songs they all knew by heart as well as a few new songs from his upcoming CD, which is set to be released in August.
The classy venue had the feel of a university lecture hall, with wood-paneled walls and a modest stage at the front of the room that held just a guitar, a microphone, and two potted plants in front of a simple black curtain. One of the nicest things about this setup was the fact that very little changed in the room from song to song except the words, the music, and an occasional shift in lighting to accommodate the mood of the next song, allowing members of the audience to focus on what they were there for – the music.
The crowd was predominantly middle-aged white folks, all seated. The mass of people remained almost eerily silent for the duration of Mr. Thompson's performance, but upon the completion of each tune, yelled and screamed like schoolchildren. Another analogy that came to mind was that of a grandfather telling stories to a group of grandchildren huddled around his chair in a circle at a family gathering. "Tell us the one about the motorcycle, Grandpa," even though everybody in the room already knows how it goes.
Fresh from her recent Grammy nomination in the Contemporary Folk category, Eliza Gilkyson performed a short set to open the show, but it was clear from the start that she was there as a fan of Richard's first and foremost. At one point in between songs, she looked up and in a tone of disbelief said, "I'm getting paid to see Richard Thompson." Eliza's voice was soothingly warm, like a cross between Joan Baez and Lucinda Williams. And in true singer/songwriter fashion, she didn't shy away from sharing her disdain for the war in Iraq or from joking about previous marriages. Highlights were "Not Lonely" from her most recent CD and a song written about a great-grandfather of hers, removed by multiple generations, who fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War.
After Eliza's opening set and a brief break to accommodate those interested in a drink or a smoke, Mr. Thompson appeared wearing his requisite black beret, black pants, black button-down t-shirt, and a well-trimmed beard. Based solely on his appearance, he seemed as if he'd be right at home at the hippest salon in town or writing feverishly at the corner table of an old coffee shop. His songs are stories, and a thread of optimism seems to run through his repertoire.
While it was his songwriting that attracted many to Richard Thompson, it was his unbelievable precision with the guitar that left the most lasting impression. He didn't appear to hit a wrong note once, even though at times he was playing bass, lead, and rhythm guitar all at once. At the end of several songs, he was strumming so fast you didn't even notice he had stopped singing. In fact, he is so skilled with his guitar, at times it felt as if he was being downright playful.
Thompson opened the show with two new songs from his upcoming release, and then settled into more familiar territory with "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" and "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)." Toward the end of "Drunkards Roll," he leaned around the microphone to invite the audience to sing along with him, and they responded as if they had been preparing their entire lives for the opportunity. "Crawl Back" also included plenty of singing in unison, but with a much angrier tone.
What stood out the most was Thompson's obvious respect for his fans. While many artists would be turned off by the barrage of requests he faced with every pause, Thompson made an effort to acknowledge almost every request flung at him. At times, it felt as if the members of the audience were simply showing off their breadth and depth of knowledge about Thompson's repertoire. Several times he simply stayed quiet and waited for the requests to rain down on him, and everybody in the room seemed to be calling for a different song. And they weren't politely suggesting the titles, they were actively and forcefully pleading for the inclusion of their favorites.
Like "Freebird" at a Skynyrd concert, the song everybody knew they would hear was "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," originally a British folk song which has been adopted somewhat recently by a number of bluegrass bands, most notably the Del McCoury Band. The tone with which this request was made seemed to say, "Enough already. Play the one everybody loves." After just enough time to look up and smile as if to say, "I knew you were going to say that," he re-tuned his guitar and tore into it like he was singing it for the first time. When the song was over, the gentleman who had requested it yelled, "Thank you. That's a beautiful song," like he and the artist were the only two sitting in the room. "Beeswing" was another song that everybody already knew, but you never would have guessed as much judging by the stillness hanging over the crowd as the song came to its conclusion.
In addition to his most popular songs, Thompson played a handful of silly tunes, which served almost as timeouts for the room full of diehards wishing so strongly for their favorites. These included "I've Got the Hots for the Smarts," in which Thompson made his case for the importance of intellect when choosing a partner. "Smiffy's Glass Eye" was a light-hearted tune about a youngster with a glass eye, reminiscent of Shel Silverstein's finer work. Thompson even briefly honored a request for "My Sharona" before deciding to devote his precious time to slightly more intelligent fare.
In yet another show of respect for his audience, Mr. Thompson quickly returned for the encore, and the requests grew louder and more desperate. The second song of the first encore included more fast and furious strumming and the lyrics "I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight." As the crowd erupted yet again, Thompson bowed and waved and seemed genuinely appreciative of the crowd's applause. He concluded the second encore by gently fading the end of the song until it was inaudible. It was almost as if he felt bad for having to end the show, so he wanted to do it as peacefully as possible.
It's obvious when you are watching a master at his craft, and this night was no exception. With songs that people know like old friends and guitar-playing skills comparable with some of the best to ever play, Richard Thompson will continue to delight fans as long as there are fans to delight. And if his performance in Austin is any indication, he's got a long, long way to run.
JamBase | Austin
Go See Live Music!