Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio + Robert Ellis at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK – 21st February 2013Posted by Bianca on Thursday Feb 21, 2013 Under Alternative, Folk, Rock, Singer/Songwriter
Review and Photographs by John Bentley
I estimate I’ve seen Richard Thompson eight times already, probably more than any other band or artist. Any doubts about whether it’s worth seeing him again are dispelled within a few moments of his appearance on stage at Birmingham tonight. This turns out to be the best Richard Thompson concert I’ve yet seen, although I also remember saying that on the last occasion. The man is now in his 60s, but he seems to get better, like a vintage wine.
First up tonight for a solo spot is Robert Ellis a singer songwriter from Texas. His clear and distinctive voice sounds a little like a combination of James Taylor and Willy Nelson and he proves to be a good guitar picker. This is fortunate as you wouldn’t want to be a lousy guitar player on a tour with a virtuoso like Richard Thompson. He plays songs from his new album ‘Photographs’, which he tells us is half country, half folk in style. Many of his songs are quite personal but sung tongue in cheek, such as the title track from ‘Photographs’, about commitment and jealousy, where he wants his wife to take down other photographs and for him to be the only one in her life. The last song, ‘Sing Along’ is probably the best of the evening, a complex arrangement and on the subject of growing-up in the US Bible Belt. “Stick around for Richard Thompson”, he jokingly advises the audience as he leaves the stage. This proves to be good advice.
I first saw Richard Thompson when he was with legendary folk-rockers Fairport Convention, at Hull City Hall in 1970, one of the first concerts I went to as a student. After that I next saw him with his (now ex-) wife Linda as the duo Richard and Linda Thompson. Together they made a number of highly acclaimed albums, which have really stood the test of time. Since then Thompson has pursued a successful solo career, either alone on a stage with a guitar or with various touring bands.
It is difficult to place Thompson into a specific music category. His enigmatic style probably accounts for why he is not a household name rock star. He tends to be branded as a ‘folkie’, although his music is far more wide-ranging and complex than that implies. Nevertheless the folk influence in his music is fairly obvious and many of his songs tell stories, but they tend to be about the modern world rather being traditional.
Thompson is incredibly versatile and he can make albums or do a tour in various guises, solo with a guitar or with all manner of bands, with styles ranging from folk to rock and lots of stuff in between. However, his new Electric Trio is probably the heaviest and rockiest outfit he has ever put together. It’s along the lines of the guitar-bass-drums power trio, as employed by the great Jimi Hendrix Experience. Like Hendrix, Thompson is a giant of the electric guitar and has justifiably been rated as among the top 20 guitarists by Rolling Stone magazine. As a modest man Thompson probably wouldn’t want to compare himself with Jimi.
While Thompson has a vast back catalogue to draw on, he is a man who lives in the present, rather than dwelling on nostalgia, and he continues to turn out very high quality work that thankfully avoids going anywhere near the middle of the road. Tonight he is here to promote his new album, ‘Electric’, backed by the two highly proficient American musicians with whom he recorded it. They are long-term collaborators Michael Jerome (drums) and Taras Prodaniuk (bass), who were also in his (larger) band on the last UK tour in 2011.
Richard Thompson comes on wearing his customary beret and clutching a red Fender Stratocaster guitar which he uses for most of the performance tonight. He jokingly tells the audience that he’s going to play some new songs to start with, even though they’ve paid to hear his old stuff and he doesn’t believe they’ve bought his new album anyway. So the evening kicks off with three new songs, after which we get the oldies weaved into the mix.
First up is ‘Stuck on the Treadmill’, a song in a kind of ‘folk-funk’ genre, and featuring some amazingly angular guitar playing. For the fourth number we’re dipping back into his enduring previous album, ‘Dream Attic’, which provides three songs tonight. ‘Haul Me Up’ from that album provides some thrilling squealing guitar work, with great thudding bass and drums backing from the band. ‘Dream Attic’ later provides the marvellous ‘Sidney Wells’, about a murderous lorry driver, featuring a slip jig (9/8 time), we are informed. The song masterfully demonstrates how Thompson has integrated the folk genre into his own unique style of song-writing and playing.
Through the evening we get individual songs from a number of his other albums, spanning his career since Fairport Convention. ’Easy There, Steady Now’ provides a loose jazzy framework for some amazing playing from the musicians, where all the instruments seem to go off on their own paths. During ‘Al Bowlly’s In Heaven’, I find myself really rocking in my seat to the infectious rhythm. I quickly reduce the vigour of my movements having remembered a recent embarrassing occasion in a cinema watching Led Zeppelin’s ‘Celebration Day’ concert film when I had to brace my foot against the back of a seat for stability, as a bloke sitting next to me (who had consumed a few pints) was energetically freaking out and shaking the whole row.
A couple of marvellous old Richard and Linda Thompson album classics are very welcome – the lovely ‘The Shame of Doing Wrong’ and the infectiously sing-along ‘Wall of Death’, the former featuring some serious guitar playing reminiscent of Television’s classic ‘Marquee Moon’ album.
The evening goes down so well that the audience demands two encores. Interestingly, as the band comes on for the first encore, a member of the audience shouts a request for ‘Wall of Death’. Richard Thompson says he is not sure if the band know how the song goes and he starts playing it solo. The band gradually join in and quickly get the hang of it and do an excellent rendition. Thompson and the band clearly really enjoy playing together and are not worried about taking risks. They are true professionals. A new song, ‘Stony Ground’ is then slipped into the encore and manages to sound just like one of the classics. Then audience participation – ‘Little Sally Rackett’, with a ‘haul away’ chorus, because (Thompson states) Birmingham loves a sea shanty.
The second encore features a wonderful solo rendition on acoustic guitar of ‘From Galway to Graceland’, a touching story of a (rather deluded) woman who goes from Ireland to the late-Elvis’s Graceland to be with her romantic hero. The show ends appropriately with the racing pace of ‘Tear Stained Letter’, a song that seems to go faster and faster towards its sudden end, with Thompson confidently letting his fans take over the lyrics. On that high, the three musicians take a bow and leave the stage. It’s been a quite remarkable evening of music.
Setlist: Stuck on the Treadmill; Sally B; Salford Sunday; Haul Me Up; Can’t Win; My Enemy; Easy There, Steady Now; Al Bowlly’s In Heaven; Good Things Happen to Bad People; Sidney Wells; Did she Jump or was She Pushed; Never Give Up: The Shame of Doing Wrong; If Love Whispers Your Name. First Encore: Wall of Death; Stoney Ground; Little Sally Rackett. Second Encore: From Galway to Graceland; Tear Stained Letter.