Fans of beret-wearing guitarist/balladeer/icon Richard Thompson are like people who devour Larry McMurtry novels: They’re out there, and their devotion is passionate, but you’d never be able to identify one on the street. They don’t shout their allegiance with T-shirts and trinkets. They don’t dye their hair blue or poke jewelry through their nostrils. Even when they are in the same room with the man, Richard Thompson fans don’t enthuse much. The relationship between Thompson and his audience is more like a comfortable marriage in which the love is taken for granted, thus rendering overt expressions of affection redundant and maybe even suspicious. When the hoots and hollers do come—as they inevitably did at the tail end of Thompson’ s excellent show last night at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater—it means that much more, because it’s applause that’s been earned.
Over four decades of musical productivity have made Thompson the most durable elder-statesmen of both folk music and rock-and-roll—and still one of the best. He could easily rest on his laurels, but last night’s show demonstrated quite convincingly that Thompson has no intention of limping quietly into retirement. If he goes, it’s going to be at the peak of a raging, virtuosic guitar solo. I took my fourteen-year-old son to hear what an electric guitar can sound like in the hands of a master. After a long, weird, ultimately wonderful solo that toyed with all kinds of Bartokian discord, spanned the entire fretboard five or six times, and rolled along in wave after wave of relentless jamming that threatened at times to overwhelm the humble Fitzgerald, it was satisfying to hear the boy say, “Man, that dude can shred!”
Thompson can do a lot of other things too, which is why he’s such an interesting artist. For those who like Thompson’s rocking side, he played a number of songs off his latest album, Sweet Warrior, including such typically droll numbers as "Dad’s Gonna Kill Me," and "Mr. Stupid." For those who prefer Thompson’s mellower acoustic side, he played the obligatory "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and "Sunset Song." His jazz followers got a swinging "Al Bowlly’s In Heaven," devotees of his ballads and sea shanties got "Hard Luck Stories" and "Mingulay Boat Song," and fans of his more mainstream rock got such staples as "Listening to the Wrong Heartbeat," "Read About Love," and "Gypsy Love Songs."
Thompson’s entire career has been an exercise in understatement, so it wasn’t surprising to see very little flash or dazzle onstage, save for the fireworks that came out of his fingers. No light show, no special effects, nothing—in fact, the only color onstage was in the turquoise body of Thompson’s custom-made Ferrington Telecaster.
No, it was just the legend and his very capable three-man band playing great music for more than two hours without a break. The most surprising thing is how good Thompson's voice is sounding these days (like Dylan, it sounded worse twenty years ago), and how much heart he's still putting into each song. St. Paul was only the third stop on the current U.S. tour, but the band was tight and the energy still fresh. In appreciation, the audience last night finally broke down at the end of the second encore and showed Thompson that yes, they did know all the words to "Tear Stained Letter," and yes, they did love the show, even though they sat through most of it without moving a muscle. "Sorry. We were just pacing ourselves," the final applause seemed to say, "because keeping up with you is no easy feat."