Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Published: The Independent, 21 January 1998
Belfast’s Waterfront Hall embodies all the characteristics of a provincial Barbican – a kind of clinical, beige Gormenghast of a place where corridors lead to more corridors and the only distinguishing features are little notices here and there that say ‘Dressing Rooms This Way’ but lead, invariably, to more corridors. It is in this environment that the estimable George Lowden, luthier to the stars, leads a squad of his guitar-making, Thompson-worshipping staff to meet (or at least find) the great man after the show. Perhaps, being from this neck of the woods, they can even show him the way out but for the moment their speculations are more concerned with which model of their internationally renowned range he was actually playing tonight. “Looked like an L27a to me” says George. “No, I’m sure it was a 28…” says one of the boys. And off they go.
Coming to prominence as the prodigal, painfully shy, electric alchemist of Fairport Convention during their late ‘60s heyday, then as the singer/songwriting merchant of doom in a largely acoustic duo with his then wife Linda in the ‘70s, Richard Thompson has honed himself into a critically lauded all-rounder whose now masterful grasp of the entertainer’s role ensures that, however life-sentenced to rock’s ‘best kept secret’ category he may be (and tonight it is a secret at least a thousand people in Belfast know), his appeal reaches out well beyond a core constituency of guitar buffs. The reckless confidence and wry banter he positively exudes onstage provides an almost eccentric, thoroughly adrenalised contrast to the sombre themes of his writing. But as a songwriter whose works are routinely covered across the musical spectrum from Irish ballad singers to American hardcore bands, their latent craftsmanship and appeal are far greater than his own famously modest record sales would suggest. It is said, for instance, that his own 1972 solo debut Henry The Human Fly – on the cover of which our hero straddles a music hall stage in a frankly still unexplained insect disguise – holds the honour of being the worst-selling product in Warner Brothers’ history. And it would be more typical of Thompson to tell you this than the fact that he’s seemingly never had a bad review in ten years and has lent his singular virtuosity to dozens of spectacularly cool records from Nick Drake to Robert Plant and all points in between.
In short, he is a maverick icon loosely in the manner of an English Neil Young. But more so than Young, Thompson has also learnt well the art of crafting concert programs likely to keep even the most casual listener engaged and, for the die-hards, devastatingly short, thrilling guitar solos of the kind that use so many weird intervals and unlikely turns of corner that their ‘A to B’ includes a rollercoaster ride through most of the alphabet along the way. No langourous covers of ‘Cortez The Killer’ here, thank you very much.
We may never know if Robert Johnson sold his soul at a crossroads or if Elvis still hangs around supermarkets but the orthodoxy that an evening in the company of Richard Thompson is a fast track to doom and despair is, on the hard evidence of this commanding, soulful and extraordinarily dynamic performance in Belfast, of all places, simply wrong. For two thirds of the show, entirely alone on a vast, impressively full but ‘difficult’ auditorium for rock artists, he powered through material that ran the gamut of light and shade – songs generally dating from the late ‘80s on but here, taken together, demonstrating a consistency in both quality and accessibility that has not always been the case with individual records.
Kicking off with the 1988 single ‘Turning Of The Tide’, the notion of one man, one guitar as a limited sonic experience was immediately out the window. With a singular technique, and the canny use of effects via the mixing desk, a pulsing bass figure and scurrying, mischievous lead lines flowed with deceptive ease from the one set of fingers and thumb to drive home a song that, far from being miserable, was positively rocking in authentic Sun Studios fashion. From time to time, as each song demanded, he would pastiche the sounds and scales of Barney Kessel, Daniel Lanois, even, I kid you not, Scots accordeon God Jimmy Shand. There was nothing if not variety.
For every once archetypal Thompson ballad – the plaintive wartime morality play ‘How Will I Ever Be Simple Again?’, or the shimmering electric piano-isms of ‘Hide It Away’ from the recent You? Me? Us? – there were songs that simply revelled in the celebration of life, in their own offbeat way. All but embodying the characters in his songs, the passion of Thompson’s performance brought momentary, multi-dimensional life to the street-fighting deviant of ‘I Feel So Good’, the doomed, thrill-seeking biker of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ and the strange, shadowy heroine of ‘Beeswing’ – a song that, like his best work, explores complex emotions in a story that while complete in itself leaves a space marked ‘conclusion’ for the listener. When his son Teddy joined him for a run through some “family favourites” at the end – proving himself a stunningly effective vocal substitute for Linda – we were in the home straight with easily familiar oldies, but the adrenalised powerhouse of Thompson on his own, on a good night, is an experience that adding to will never better.