RIVIERA, APRIL 1
For a quarter of a century Richard Thompson, the English guitarist and singer-songwriter, has found a powerful form for expressing anger and grief in the centuries-old traditions of Celtic music. When he imbues his work with not only the tradition's melodic richness, but also its dark poetry of faithless lovers, outlaws, and outcasts, death and devastation, he creates some of the most emotionally potent music in contemporary pop. His skills as a musician and songwriter are such that he can create engaging material even when he strays from this tradition, but the emotional weight and impact of his music quickly diminishes when he does.
The juxtaposition of two songs near the end of Thompson's recent two-hour, 23-song set at the Riviera highlighted the difference between his merely entertaining material and the frighteningly intense emotions he can extract from his ancient sources. "Shoot Out the Lights"--perhaps his most acclaimed song--is a gripping account of an urban killer on the prowl; it's constructed like a medieval dirge, each line framed with modal chords crashing against each other like tolling cathedral bells. Thompson's chords and drummer Dave Mattacks's drums pounded mercilessly; Thompson and multiinstrumentalist Peter Zorn's elongated harmonies ("waaatching the daaarrk") sounded like a call to judgment. Amid the clamor, Zorn's mandolin solo initially seemed incongruous, but his slicing, frenzied playing aptly suggested the inner turmoil of the song's subject. And Thompson's devastating solo on electric guitar created a sense of carnage.
After the rage and horror suggested by "Shoot Out the Lights," Thompson understandably may have wanted to lighten the mood. But the trifling "Valerie" was a poor follow-up. A Cajun-flavored rocker in which a man laments his lover's conspicuous consumption with broad sarcasm, "Valerie" can be energetic and enjoyable heard on its own. But next to "Shoot Out the Lights" it just seemed silly, even inappropriate, like a lewd joke concluding a eulogy.
Of course pop music isn't supposed to be weighed down with depressing or downright disturbing subjects like murder and madness. Pop music is supposed to be fun. Shouldn't it be enough to sing upbeat songs about the classic pop verities of cars, love, and sex? Thompson did address these topics at the Riv, singing the praises of his favorite car in "MGB-GT," roaring through a rollicking version of "Tear Stained Letter" fueled by Zorn's squealing soprano saxophone, and pounding home the edgy chords of the closing "Read About Love." Granted, the sexual confusion and blundering depicted in this last song are a bit removed from the smooth, assured swagger of ladies' men from Sinatra to L.L. Cool J, but pop makes allowances these days for irony and satire. Besides, the song offered the pleasures of Thompson's dazzling guitar virtuosity just as his version of "Tear Stained Letter" did. In his frequent solos throughout the show he clustered clipped, precisely articulated notes like a jazz guitarist, exploring rapid-fire variations on a chord progression in a lean, twangy tone--think Mark Knopfler with a darker, heavier timbre.
This technical brilliance, Thompson's wit as a lyricist, and his rich, full vocal melodies all made for solid, sturdy entertainment for most of his performance. Yet these virtues couldn't give emotional depth to Thompson's lighter songs or his weaker material--new songs like "The Way That It Shows" and "Mingus Eyes" or solo acoustic renditions of "Waltzing's for Dreamers" or "Ghosts in the Wind." None of these performances approached the feeling he brought to songs expressing either profound sorrow (a lovely, solo, acoustic "Dimming of the Day") or full-bore rage (the joltingly rhythmic "Back Street Slide"). These renditions were among the evening's most energetic and committed, showing that Thompson is best when he's at his darkest. He's fascinated by the intense emotions stirred by extreme situations ("the nearest to being alive," as he put it during "Wall of Death"). Those emotions, which Thompson's graceful lyrics and radiant melodies express superbly, have a galvanizing effect on his audience, who can thrill vicariously.
Thompson's Riv songs were filled with characters in extreme situations, ranging from the crippled and homeless ("Al Bowlly's in Heaven") to the mad ("From Galway to Graceland") to the simply heartbroken ("Easy There, Steady Now"), but he exhibited the most energy and zest singing about criminals and their violent lives on or beyond society's boundaries. The anger of a prisoner just out on parole crept close to the surface during the lilting, jubilant "I Feel So Good." Thompson's hell-bent-for-leather solo rendition of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" may have overwhelmed the song, but this tale of a doomed outlaw redeemed by love still retained much of its pathos.
When Thompson bypasses mundane and superficial pop conventions to reach deep into the human soul, his audience can find its deepest feelings beautifully expressed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ebet Roberts.