I took in back-to-back shows this weekend by Loudon Wainright III and Richard Thompson, who are touring North America together this Fall as "Loud and Rich." This is the first time since my Deadhead days I have followed musicians from one gig to the next, and it afforded me the chance to see how this combo was shaping up and especially to spoil myself by listening to Richard Thompson two nights in a row. I swear, I could happily do that for a week of Sundays, even if he stuck to the same set list. The things he can do with a guitar never fail to astonish.
These two old friends are an intriguing pairing. They both share a merciless wit, with clear affection for novelty songs and dark humor. Thompson produced a couple of Wainwright's albums and Loudon has covered some of Thompson's songs. They both have folk roots and they both have maintained a loyal fan base for about 40 years. They clearly get along, and that was particularly evident in some of the songs they did together. Otherwise, they are very different musicians. Wainwright is a shoot-from-the-hip kind of performer, whereas Thompson has a smoother delivery, spot on timing and far superior technique. They may have had equal billing, but any other performer with Loudon's skills would have merely been the opening act.
Loud and Rich played the Flynn Theater in Burlington Vermont on October 3rd, and Harvard's Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA on the 4th. The format of the tour has Loudon playing for about an hour, to be joined by Thompson for a pair of songs and then wrapping up with one more on his own. After intermission, Thompson takes the stage for an hour, with Loudon coming back for two encores together (the first Thompson's choice, the second one Loudon's). With the exception of "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" - done as a duet as the first encore on both nights - the other songs they performed together were different each time. The best was a raucous rendition in Cambridge of the R&B classic "Smokey Joe's Cafe", which suited their styles really well, and featured Thompson's over the top delivery of Smokey Joe's warning - in a Scottish brogue, no less - "You better eat up all your beans, boy and clear right on out."
I understand now why restaurant critics make two visits before submitting their reviews, because the Flynn show had some unfortunate "presentation issues", particularly in Loudon's uneven opening set, that were fortunately nowhere in evidence the next night. Anyone, particularly a guitarist who plays his ax as savagely as Wainwright, can break a guitar string. Loudon broke two, without a technician to swap out instruments, and forgot the words to some of his new songs on more than one occasion. Even RT was not immune to whatever bad karma was in the air, as he unintentionally disconnected in the closing bars of 52 Vincent Black Lightning (the horror!). To his credit, Wainwright had his game fully on at the Cambridge show. The first nights of this kind of tour are essentially the shakedown cruise, anyway.
Wainwright had a piano on stage in Burlington and pulled out "Red Guitar" and "Another Song in C", which managed to pull the heartstrings at one moment and dip into self-referential mockery the next. He didn't bring his banjo, alas. He featured a number of songs from his last two albums and some that haven't even made it to disc yet. I admit that since one of these - Recovery - consists of revisiting songs from his back catalog, I was hoping for a few more old chestnuts. "Dead Skunk"? "Swimming Song"? "Clockwork Chartreuse"? No matter. Always alert to topics and trends ripe for exploitation in song, Wainwright has several "for the New Depression", including "Cash For Clunkers", a crowd favorite that Loudon wisely decided to lead off with the second night. Wainwright was game to shuffle his set list from night to night, which bodes well for the tour as he adapts to crowd response.
Thompson gave strong performances on both nights. I was blessed with very close seats in both theaters. The guitarists in the audience - including my wife for the Burlington show - were universally gobsmacked by his picking and fretwork. I've seen him perform live often enough in the last few years to start to notice how even songs that seem to be in regular rotation evolve as he plays, and especially the way he sings them. He positively growls the line "to ride" in 52 Vincent Black Lightning like the pipes of James Adie's motorbike, and the way he ratchets up the vocal crescendos of Crawl Back (Under My Stone) - the closing song of the second set on both nights - left me and everyone else in the hall as delirious as the roiling chords that wail in waves from that guitar like it were a fully loaded Strat instead of acoustic.
Thompson's set during the Flynn Show stuck to a list that included a haunting rendition of "Persuasion" and a foray into the acoustic material from the mid 90's album You? Me? Us?, from which he selected both "Cold Kisses" and (surprisingly) "Woods of Darney". Richard has a new lament in his repertoire to go with three recent losses - with the chorus "A Brother Slips Away" - that I hope makes it into his next album. He did great renditions of "I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight" each show, dropping an hilarious aside during the second performance that the original LP featured the misprinted lyric "a couple of drunken knights rolling around on the floor" that would have made ol' Sigmund proud.
RT seems to favor some of his more recent work more than others in performance. He knows that "52 Vincent Black Lightning" is the one song we all must have and very kindly obliges us every time. He featured three songs from "Sweet Warrior" in Burlington that I heard him do last year in Great Barrington: "Johnny's Far Away", "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" and "Sunset Song", which last has the potential to be another audience favorite in the same vein as "Beeswing". However, the songs from his 2005 "all acoustic" Front Parlor Ballads appear destined for obscurity and rarely get an airing.
The second set in Cambridge followed the same list as the night before until the audience started calling out requests. So near the end, with Thompson declaring he was "putty in our hands", he obliged by playing "Bathsheba Smiles", "Beeswing" and "From Galway to Graceland". On this night with things breaking their way and all that good energy in the hall, I would have loved to have heard another song or two with Loud and Rich together. God knows what they would have decided to play next. Maybe something by Plastic Bertrand. Thompson has that covered.All in all I was pleased to have attended both concerts. A bit of a novelty act, something of an experiment, it was great fun to watch and hear. My cousins in Charlottesville should make every effort to catch Loud and Rich when they roll into town, and RT has a solo gig coming up in Princeton, too, so my kin in Jersey have an appointment to keep.