It has been a considerable while since I last heard Richard Thompson strap on an electric guitar and blister through his back catalog with his band. At the shows I have attended in the last few years, he has tended either to have been touring solo and acoustic or in his "1000 years of popular music" incarnation with Debra Dobkin and Judith Owen. Indeed, he has another upcoming round in April double billed with Loudon Wainwright III as Loud and Rich.
But last night at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, the Richard Thompson Band wrapped up a three night stand and final night of a brief, West Coast recording tour of brand new material with a second set of his previous work. I managed to make my way from the East Coast to the West to take it all in.
The band was in top form, with mainstay drummer Michael Jerome and polyinstrumental Peter Zorn blowing horns and playing rhythm joined by Joel Zifkin on violin and Taras Prodaniuk on bass. Thompson is a generous front man, perhaps because he has also done extensive session work, and knows how to feature his talented fellow musicians without sucking the wind out of the performance by his own massive talent.
There are some songs in the Thompson cannon that really open up with a full band. Highlights from the second set included a monstrous jam on "Tear Stained Letter", the dance hall classic "Al Bowley's in Heaven" that fit the band in this grand old room like a pair of evening gloves, and an encore of "I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight" that rolled around the floor in glorious excess. There were also surprises, like leading off the set with "Time Will Show the Wiser" from his youthful days with the Fairport Convention, "Can't Win" from 1988's Amnesia, and the choice of "Wall of Death" from the classic Shoot Out the Lights album with ex wife Linda Thompson.
The audience seemed to appreciate that they were part of something unusual, as there was little shouting out of requests as is more typical of his solo shows. I did not hear a single complaint that audience favorite "52 Vincent Black Lighting" did not get its customary airing - there had been too much ear candy in an evening that went nearly three hours.
The first set featured 13 songs of previously unrecorded new material. The only one I had heard before was called (I believe) "A Brother Slips Away", written after the deaths of three old friends. A Thompson ballad can just as easily be of the murder variety as of the tattered heart sort, and there were songs that came from both places in the new recordings. Thompson's deliciously over the top audience banter helped set the crowd up for the unfamiliar songs, a few of which let him and the other band members really open up and explore the boundaries though this was more in evidence during the second set.
I had the great pleasure of taking an old friend to see Richard Thompson for the first time at this concert and his wide eyed response as we left the theater was "I have a lot of catching up to do." I hope that the live album that results from this tour features both sets, the old and new, bookends of an exceptionally fine evening.