Fiery Transcendence from Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub

Considering how many years Richard Thompson’s career has encompassed since he debuted as Fairport Convention’s nineteen-year-old lead guitarist, it is a cliche to say that he’s better than ever. But it’s true! His voice has deepened, adding yet another shade of darkness to his sardonic, bitter narratives, and his fingers on the fretboard are faster than ever. At this point in time, Thompson is unrivalled: he is the greatest rock guitarist in the world, bar none. Last night at Joe’s Pub he reaffirmed that with a searing, haunting performance that required two encores and would have gone on much longer if there hadn’t been another show scheduled afterward. Thompson has yet another brilliant new album, Electric, just out, a power trio project with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, and they used this show to air out a bunch of tunes from that one in preparation for a marathon US tour in March (scroll down for the schedule).

They opened with a snarling workingman’s anthem from the new album, Stuck on the Treadmill. Right from the git-go, Thompson’s  first guitar solo went romping, searing and screaming as it pulled against the central key. Was this going to be one of those legendary shows that all the Thompson fans (a typically but not always more urbane crowd, by comparison to the Phish-heads) would be going crazy over for years? Arguably, yes. The album version of Thompson’s second mumber, Sally B, evokes early Led Zep, but this one began closer to Thompson’s Britflolk roots before he ripped it to shreds with pyrotechnic volleys of sixteenth-note runs, maniacal tremolo-picking and cruel sledgehammer riffage, appropriate for a song inspired by a woman he met at a fundraiser who seems to be an attractive version of Sarah Palin.

They followed the moody new rainy-day anthem Salford with a searing take of Haul Me Up and then a fast backbeat version of the epic Can’t Win, a signature Thompson individualist anthem. “What kind of mother would hamstring her sons?” he intoned, a Margaret Thatcher reference back in 1987 but no less apt these days, leading the band through a ferocious, haphazard chromatic solo that finally exploded in a firestorm of chord-chopping.

From there, the trio worked the dynamics with an artful, sometimes wry expertise. My Enemy, a quietly triumphant, brooding survivor’s anthem featured some gorgeous guitar/bass interplay as it quietly wound out. The starkly swinging Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, a bitter account of a homeless WWII vet, was faster than usual, with yet another long, menacingly rippling solo, Thompson playing this on acoustic guitar instead of the red vintage Strat he used throughout most of the set. The ominously shuffling Easy There Steady Now was both epic and terse, Prodaniuk waiting til the end to echo the original bassline, trading licks with his guitarist.

They went moody and lyrical with the ballad Dry My Tears and Move On before bringing the intensity back to redline with the cynical new Good Things Happen to Bad People, then lit up the murder ballad Sidney Wells with yet another snarling guitar solo, followed by a rapidfire take of the defiant I’ll Never Give It Up.  They ended the set counterintuitively with a downcast version of If Love Whispers Your Name, with a slow burn down. The first encore began with the scampering  Stoney Ground – another standout track from the new abum – then a singalong on a sea chantey, followed by a rather ambiguous take of the ballad Saving the Good Stuff for You and then a crowd-pleasing, lickety-split roman candle romp through the pinwheeling electric reel Tearstained Letter. Best New York show of the year? Up to this point, no question. Thompson and this trio will be on tour this spring, dates below:

March 17 /// The Peabody Opera House /// St. Louis, MO
March 19 /// The Pabst Theater /// Milwaukee, WI
March 20 /// Symphony Center /// Chicago, IL
March 22 /// Massey Hall /// Toronto, ON
March 23 /// Orpheum Theatre /// Boston, MA
March 24 /// The Paramount /// Huntington, NY
March 26 /// Academy of Music /// Philadelphia, PA
March 29 /// Strathmore /// North Bethesda, MD
March 30 /// Durham Performing Arts Center /// Durham, NC
April 1 /// Belk Theater at Blumenthal PAC /// Charlotte, NC
April 3 /// Johnny Mercer Theater /// Savannah, GA
April 4 /// Cobb Energy PAC /// Atlanta, GA