Richard Thompson Electric Trio

Mar 06, 2015

Richard Thompson has deservedly won music critics’ accolades around the world. Fans loyally adore him.

He’s listed in the top 20 of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”; has played on sessions for industry legends including Crowded House and Bonnie Raitt; been named as a major influence by The Smiths and REM; and won a slew of awards for his songs.

It all seems appropriate since Thompson was a defining part of what became Britain’s own folk/rock sound (an approach to guitar picked up by Jimmy Page, among others). Since then, he’s built a quirky solo career while always fostering his own cutting edge.

He seems humble enough not to mind, yet despite those credentials, Richard Thompson is far from superstardom. In fact, he’s a bit of a train-spotter’s delight in the rock world – an image helped along by his unavoidable, slightly effete Englishness and rare combination of talents.

Now near the end of his 66th year, Thompson remains one of the finest guitarists in the world; he’s also fit, nimble and still writing killer songs. Maybe his secret is that he runs a lean operation.

He opens this two-hour Adelaide Festival show as a solo act, then return with drums and bass for his trio’s superb set (including three encores). Not finished yet, the world-class guitarist ends the night signing CDs – adorned throughout with his trademark black beret and living out the political values he evinces in his lyrics.

Thompson delicately places his stamp on so many genres: folk ballad, soul confession, mystic romantic ruminations, jazz – jazz that swings, jazz that complicates. He’ll even try rock’n’roll.

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In the acoustic set, the heavy bottom-string drone in “Johnny’s Far Away” helps evoke the sea shanties that so entertain Thompson and also the deeper, darker mood more akin to the piquant melancholy of his natural home.

“Guitar Heroes”, from the electric second set, is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s almost a tour de force, introduced by Thompson as a tribute to the guitarists from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s he listened to while growing up: Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and Hank Marvin. It’s exciting and impressive, with a series of flashy leads in the style of his heroes .

The disappointing – yet humanising – thing about Thompson’s extraordinary reach is that he always falls short, just at the point where he wants to play an upbeat rock stomper. So he can imitate the sound, but ruins the feel of the very people he so justly wants to emulate. Yes, Richard Thompson swings (especially in the slow, Celtic soul that defines his talent), but his upbeat tunes just thump along and rarely generate great solos.

The beauty is that, even though he can’t copy his idols, the rest of his repertoire shows time and again that Thompson is a guitar hero in his own right. In his first visit to Adelaide with an electric set, his enthralling musical palette more than matched those of his heroes.

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