It’s often been argued that Richard Thompson is not only the greatest guitarist but also the greatest songwriter in the history of rock. Year after year, he continues to validate that claim. This past evening in the sonically magnificent confines of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark, Thompson revitalized a mix of darkly glimmering folk-rock favorites from the 60s through the present decade, along with a trio of new songs that reaffirmed the iconic songwriter’s presence in the pantheon. Heavy praise earned by a heavy guy, philosophically speaking, anyway.
Plenty of bandleaders will do an occasional solo acoustic tour for the sake of putting a fresh spin on old material…or for the sake of some perceived intimacy with the audience (which only works if the lyrics are strong)…or to max out the bottom line since there’s no band to pay. Thompson, on the other hand, has at least two fully arranged versions of probably most of the songs in his vast back catalog, one electric and one acoustic, and probably other alternates as well. Like most of his contemporaries from the 60s and 70s English folk revival, he’s always had a thing for unusual guitar tunings, but he’s taken that obsession to a new level, and the songs with it. The result is richly layered internal harmonies that are as sophisticated as Bach and if anything enhance the succinctness and catchiness of his tunes. At this solo acoustic show, one prime example was I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an eager, cheery folk-pop number in its original 1974 incarnation with Thompson’s ex-wife Linda on harmonies. Live, in a new tuning and without the bvox, it took on an unexpected gravitas that meshed especially well with the other material.
Which can be pretty grim. Thompson opened with Stony Ground, a pretty savage dig at an old goat who can’t manage to keep his overexcited, um, imagination zipped. He followed with an aptly sepulchral take of The Ghost of You Walks and revisited that haunted atmosphere with I Misunderstood at the end of his roughly 75-minute set. Revenge took centerstage in the deliciously vicious, anthemic Good Things Happen to Bad People and later in Fergus Lang, an excoriatingly funny portrait of a robber baron developer (who very, very closely resembles Donald Trump) who buys off the local powers that be in order to desecrate the countryside with golf courses and the like. The tune became even funnier in context after Thompson played a few bars of the dirty old Scottish folk song that inspired it.
The new material was characteristically vivid and eclectic: Josephine, a brooding minor-key portrait of a woman who isn’t completely together to begin with and is slowly losing what she has left; One Door Opens, a stark, rustically rhythmic number that harks back to Thompson’s roots; and a resonantly bittersweet portrait of Amsterdam. Thompson also did rousing takes of obligatory fan favorites including the lickety-split robber ballad Vincent Black Lightning, and The Wall of Death, his defiantly classic anthem about living at full emotional throttle, no matter what the cost. That one had some highwire, raga-esque soloing, as did the opening number, along with Read About Love, a sarcastic look back at 50s British sexual mores and their ugly consequences.
Otherwise, this show was about going as deeply into the songs as possible and wringing out their intensity, through the Newcastle gothic of Black Leg Miner (a fiercely pro-union song), the sardonic sea chantey Johnny’s Faraway on the Rolling Sea and an unexpected treat, a newly arranged take of Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Throughout the set, Thompson subtly varied his tones and timbres, coloring them with watery tremolo and judicious use of reverb and delay. And he’s never sung better, especially strong in the low registers.
A word about the venue: nice place! It’s about half the size of the Town Hall, with pristine acoustics, comfortable seating, pleasantly laid-back and helpful staff, and it’s just a brief five-minute walk from the Path train. Door-to-door home from the train station, in this case, took under an hour (admittedly, jumping on the F just as it was leaving the station was a big help)