If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever decided to open a wing devoted to persons who were infamous for not being famous, Richard Thompson could be its inaugural inductee.
Thursday night, he nearly filled the Folly Theater, and for a few minutes short of two full hours, he gave the crowd of about 1,000 a dazzling and resonant display of songwriting, guitar play, humor, wit and humility.
Thompson, 64, has a music history that goes back to the mid-1960s, when he was part of the British folk ensemble Fairport Convention. Upon leaving that troupe in the early 1970s, he started a music partnership with his wife, Linda Thompson, that would last nearly nine years. Since then, he has recorded and performed as a solo artist. Along the way, he has released several classic albums, written dozens of sterling songs and evolved into a guitarists who dazzles and impresses his peers.
For his Folly show, he brought with him a dandy rhythm section that also provided vocal harmonies throughout the night: drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, both of whom played on Thompson’s 2010 “Dream Attic” album. Thursday night, they issued a sound that was remarkably tight, taught and dynamic, even during some of his quieter moments, like “My Enemy,” or a midtempo guitar ballad like “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” all from his latest album, “Electric.”
The heart of every Thompson show is his guitar and the sound he delivers from it. His set was filled with lots of instrumentals, but not once did he surrender to or indulge in cliches or noodling. Rather, his instrumental forays are odysseys that seem to launch, lurch or glide into whatever daring direction or genius impulse crosses his mind. They aren’t erratic; rather, they seem to follow some distinct narrative, a voice and style that is distinctly Thompson’s.
There were too many great solos to mention all of them, but the one that ended “Shoot Out The Lights” deserves recognition for its transcendence and fury and for the ovation it received.
He shuffled the old and the new in his set list. He opened with three from “Electric,” starting with “Stuck on the Treadmill,” which, like many of his songs, is based in rock-blues. Yet because Thompson is such a crafty lyricist and accomplished musician, his songs rarely sink into predictability.
The crowd showed its long-time loyalty by responding to the older numbers, which were his best songs Thursday evening. The bittersweet “For Shame of Doing Wrong” was the first, a duet he did with Linda Thompson back in the 1980s. It still sounds pertinent and vital and resoundingly melancholic, even without her vocals.
That was one of many highlights from a set list that comprised 19 songs. “Wall of Death,” one of his classics, was another. So was the heart-wrenching “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” an encore that was, apparently, also a request from someone way up front.
His first encore was the show’s centerpiece: a solo acoustic version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” that, as much as any song this evening, showcased his stunning dexterity on the guitar. As if making his acoustic guitar sound like a large and very busy string ensemble weren’t enough, he also sang vocals to one of the more epic and ornate songs in British folk-music history. Of all his songs that deserve to be way more hallowed and honored than it is, this one tops the list.
During his encore, he jokingly apologized for being part of a threesome that wasn’t a classic power trio. Then he and his mates tore through “Hey, Joe,” a rock standard made popular by, among others, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
He ended with “Tear-Stained Letter,” a rock song with a punk/new wave attitude that prompted the one real sing-along all night, and a loud and hearty one it was. It also promoted some dancing, despite the fact this was a seated show. And finally, it prompted a prolonged storm of cheers and applause from a crowd that all evening gave Thompson the star treatment he truly deserves.