The view out front. Photo: Lewis Cooper
If you haven’t heard of Richard Thompson, it’s not your fault. The man has a storied musical career, but people don’t always pay attention to history—not even when they should. As far as recorded history goes, Thompson made his debut in 1967 as part of a multi-member British folk collective called Fairport Convention. In 1969, with the album Liege & Lief, Fairport married traditional UK folk sensibilities with electric instruments. This electrified folk cooperative, which included several guitarists and a female singer, drew immediate and accurate comparisons to Jefferson Airplane. Though they were a decisive shift in the folk movement that would sweep many European music scenes, they never really had much success in the US. In 1971 Thompson left Fairport Convention, a group he had helped found, in order to embark on a solo career. It didn’t pay off for him commercially. His first record, Henry the Human Fly was well received by his fans. The problem was that he didn’t have very many fans. According to a recent BBC article, this solo effort remains Warner Brothers’ lowest-selling album of all time. That means, embarrassingly enough, that there are Grace Jones records that have moved more units.
That being said, the past 40 years haven’t been bad for the man known as RT. His persistence has paid off, earning him respect as both a guitarist and a songwriter. As such, Thompson was given the Orville H. Gibson award for best acoustic guitar player in 1991. In 2006, RT was presented with a lifetime achievement award from BBC Radio. He was also tapped to provide the soundtrack for Warner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, an achievement that introduced him to many more fans. The quality of his live performances led to a spot on a recent episode of Elvis Costello’s Sundance Chanel show Spectacle. Riding the wave of his live reputation, Thompson made the brilliant decision to release an album of new material in the form of the live disc Dream Attic. The reviews of this record have been stellar.
Touring on this latest effort, Thompson played Salt Lake’s State Room on Monday, October 4th to a completely packed house. He was joined on stage by a full electric band that featured Steeleye Span member and long-time collaborator Pete Zorn (guitars, flute, sax, and mandolin), Michael Jerome (drums), Taras Prodaniuk (bass) and Joel Zifkin (fiddle, mandolin) — the same group that played on Dream Attic. There was no opening act. Armed with his signature black beret and his trusty light blue Stratocaster, Thompson and the band ripped through two sets of impressive music. They played from 8pm until almost 11, pausing in the middle to give the crowd a chance to catch their collective breath and to refill their glasses of wine. It was a decidedly older crowd of Thompson enthusiasts (at 35 years of age I’m almost sure I was the youngest person in attendance). As the night grew on and as RT’s Celtic-tinged guitar solos pushed many songs to over eight minutes in length, the crowd let their hair down and met each offering with generous applause.
The first set of music was a complete performance of the latest record. When I first heard Dream Attic, my only criticism was that the songs didn’t always seem to fit together. An angry riff on Wall Street brokers followed by a short UK-folk number that was then followed by a lengthy rock anthem just didn’t seem to gel too well in my mind. But seeing them played in person, from start to finish, added the power necessary to make the composition work. A highlight of this first set was the tune “Among The Gorse, Among The Grey,” a gorgeous mandolin-heavy number that invoked the spirit of Scotland so strongly that even the drum beat seemed to have an accent. This number led into another strong point, an American-rock infused tune called “Haul Me Up.” Most of the crowd was unfamiliar with these newer tracks, but that didn’t stop them from encouraging Thompson to bring down the house.
The real treat, though, was the second set. The refreshed and rested band blew through a greatest hits collection of Thompson’s solo work. It was good to hear songs like "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight" re-imagined with the new group of musicians. This was a mainstay of his early solo career, and a song that was normally sung by his then-wife Linda Thompson. For this one, RT himself sang, adding a gruff vocal layer that made “Bright Lights” more endearing to me. My favorite moment of the night was a guitar-heavy version of 1982’s “Wall of Death.” This was a song that had also traditionally paired Thompson’s vocal with the lighter sound of Linda’s voice. It was also a personal song that showcased their crumbling marriage, carrying much more emotional weight than would seem possible. With band-mate Pete Zorn assuming the high harmony, Thompson added a pair of extended guitar solos that turned the song into an anthem for counting your losses and moving on. It was unbelievable.
The other star of the evening was the venue itself. The State Room was made for an event of this kind. The early start time allowed for working folks to go out on a Monday and still get home in time to make it into work the next day. The intimate setting, the theater seating and the upscale bar enriched the experience even more. At the request of the band the dance floor had been cleared of tables, opening up the front of the venue and breaking down this final barrier between the audience and the musicians. This is the type of venue that musicians look forward to playing and the kind that concert goers will happily pour into—that’s how a little known Scottish guitar god was able to sell the place completely out. It is a terrific place to catch a show. And when the talent is as intense and generous as the Richard Thompson Band, it’s a win for everyone involved.