Richard Thompson: Electric!

Richard Thompson at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21-3-2013. Photograph by John Bentley, Gig Reviews

I last saw Richard Thompson playing solo acoustic on a rainswept night in New Brighton (nights don’t get much better than that!).  But Friday night at the Liverpool Phil was different: Thompson was back with a powerhouse trio to promote his new album Electric.  And that’s what we got – an evening of high voltage guitar, bass and drums. Electrification.
In fact, so carried away was Thompson with the notion of being frontman for a hard rock trio that when it came to the encores he admitted that he’s sometimes imagined himself as Clapton with Ginger Baker flailing his drumkit and Jack Bruce punching bass behind him – and duly blasted into a storming account of Cream’s ‘White Room’.
Before the Thompson trio came on stage we heard from Robert Ellis, one of those Texan singer songwriters who inhabit a region somewhere between Lefty Frizzell and Townes Van Zandt. He was a very good guitar picker, which may be why Thompson chose him as support act. He played a few songs from his album Photographs that were quite interesting for the unexpected ways in which they developed, and for their often ironic twist. He finished with a new song, ‘Sing Along’, about growing-up in the Bible Belt whose irony, he explained, is invariably lost on audiences in those parts.

Thompson appeared on stage wielding a red Fender Stratocaster, and accompanied by bass player Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, quickly kicked into the ‘folk-funk’ (Thompson’s description) of ‘Stuck On The Treadmill’, the first of several numbers from Electric that he performs during the evening. It’s one of the best songs on the album, with lyrics that speak to the times we’re in:

Our money goes out, the bills come in
Round and round we go again
I come close but I never win
I’m stuck on the treadmill

Another day of punching steel
Till my arm’s too numb to feel
Like a hamster on a wheel
I’m stuck on the treadmill

Wish I knew a better way
To keep myself alive
Shaking sheets of metal
Every day from 9 to 5
Others may be living
But me, I just survive
Me, I just survive

Me and the robot working away
He looks at me, as if to say
‘I’ll be doing your job someday’
I’m stuck on the treadmill

Jobs are going by the score
They’re laying off a hundred more
20 years and they show you the door
I’m stuck on the treadmill

Thompson delivered a blistering guitar solo, the first of many during the evening.  This is the Thompson Trio performing the song in Brighton on February 13:

‘Sally B’ and ‘My Enemy’, a couple of the weaker songs from Electric, were followed by the much better ‘Salford Sunday’ and the typically caustic ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People’:

Good things happen to bad people
But only for a while

Then, with ‘For Shame Of Doing Wrong’, it was back to the 1970s (‘They were the worst’, said Thompson, no doubt recalling his time with Linda Thompson and their subsequent break-up.

Take me back to old remembered days
Remind me of the times we spent together
Times before we went our separate ways
I wish I was a fool for you again

The 1980s weren’t a whole lot better in the Thompson psyche: he returned to those times for one of his greatest lyrics, the dissection of deference and tugging the forelock that is ‘Can’t Win’:

They told me to think and forget what I’d heard
They told me to lie and they questioned my word
They told me to fail, better sink than sail,
Just play the game

Turn the cheek. Take it on the chin.
Don’t you dare do this. Don’t you dare do that”
We shoot down dreams, stiletto in the back
Oh the nerve of some people, the nerve of some people,
I don’t know who you think you are, who you think you are

Taras Prodaniuk (bass). Photograph by John Bentley, Gig Reviews

I like both aspects of Richard Thompson – the folkier acoustic side and the hard-rocking version.  But I know there are some admirers who would prefer him just to stick to acoustic.  They got what they wanted when he picked up the acoustic for a great rendition of ‘Easy There, Steady Now’ from Mirror Blue.  It must have been around this time when someone in the front stalls called out for the perennial favourite ‘Beeswing’.  Thompson responds, ‘I’ve got the wrong guitar for that – but we could do the punk version’ before thrashing out half a verse in the aforementioned style.  But he must not have forgotten the request: later, as a first encore, he played a beautiful ‘Beeswing’.

Michael Jerome (drums). Photograph by John Bentley, Gig Reviews

The trio deliver really punchy versions of Richard’s songs, whether new or old. This has a lot to do with Taras Prodaniuk’s bass, but it’s particularly down to the powerful and varied drumming of Michael Jerome, one of the best and most inventive rock drummers I’ve seen.  The trio could do more than punch out rock, though, offering a superb version of  ‘Al Bowlly’s In Heaven’, one of those songs in which Thompson’s lyrics paint a vivid character portrait – in this case a veteran of the Second World War:

Well I gave my youth to king and country
But what’s my country done for me but sentenced me to misery
I traded my helmet and my parachute
For a pair of crutches and a demob suit
Al Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now

Hard times, hard hard times
Hostels and missions and dosser’s soup lines
Can’t close me eyes on a bench or a bed
For the sound of some battle raging in my head

‘No evening’s entertainment is complete without both a murder ballad and a sea shanty’, insisted Thompson by way of introducing ‘Sidney Wells’, which thankfully clocks in at substantially less than the ‘traditional 100 verses’.  Again, the versatility of the musicians is demonstrated as the song evolves into a slipjig ‘in 9-8 time’, as Thompson informs us.

The show drew to a close with a few songs from the dark side of RT: ‘I’ll Never Give It Up’, ‘Wall of Death’, ‘If Love Whispers Your Name’, and an unexpected ‘Did She Jump or was She Pushed’ from 1982′s Shoot Out The Lights:
She was there one minute and then she was gone the next
Lying in a pool of herself with a twisted neck
Oh she fell from the roof to the ground
There was glass lying all around
She was broken in a hundred pieces
When her body was found
She used to live life with a vengeance
And the chosen would dance,
The chosen would dance in attendance

Thompson on acoustic at the Usher Hall Edinburgh last week

The trio left the stage to thunderous applause, and for the first encore Thompson returned alone to perform ‘Beeswing’ acoustic.  Then, joined by the two other musicians, he sang ‘Saving the Good Stuff for You’, one of the best songs off Electric, perhaps destined to be a future concert classic.
Then things were concluded with the aforementioned ‘White Room’ and a rousing account of ‘Tear Stained Letter’.  Brilliant evening.  The guys on the mixing desk played us out with Ringo singing ‘Good Night’.  Nice one!

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4 thoughts on “Richard Thompson: Electric!

  1. Interested to see that heplayed White Room – I saw him on Thursday night at Usher Hall, Edinburgh. He made a comment about not being a proper ‘power trio’ and then went straight into Hendrix inspired version of Hey Joe!
    Andy

  2. Saw him in Sheffield in March (and also on that ‘rainswept night – best concert I’ve been to) and it’s interesting to see how the concerts differ. Thanks,

    As for the weaker songs on Electric, I feel I have to stand up for Sally B, it certainly isn’t one of them. I’ll give you My Enemy though.

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