During one of several outbursts of song request issued by his audience at the Folly Theatre on Wednesday night, Richard Thompson told one fan he could not redeem the request because the song was best played by a full band.
He ought to know. But after watching Thompson captivate a crowd of about 900 with only a guitar at his disposal, it’s hard to imagine any song he alone couldn’t turn into a one-man symphony.
For nearly two hours, he regaled his audience with humor, many of his most revered songs and guitar performances that were at times indescribably spectacular and that turned a solo-acoustic show into something transcendent.
He opened with “Stony Ground,” a track from his “Electric” album, recorded win Nashville in 2013 with an electric trio. Rendered in acoustic guitar, it was as resonant as the recorded version. He would revisit that album again, with similar results: “Saving the Good Stuff for You” and “Good Things Happen to Bad People” aren’t among his best songs, but only because he’s written so many great songs.
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And he played many of those, going all the way back to his days with Fairport Convention. “Have you heard of them?” he asked. “They were of little consequence. All they did was invent folk rock.” He took requests for that one and settled on “Sloth,” a hymn-like song from their “Full House” album, released in 1970.
He also plumbed the albums he made with his former wife, Linda Thompson, and each was a highlight in a night loaded with them, from the lesser-known (“The Great Valerio”) to the cherished: “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Wall of Death” and the mournful “Dimming of the Day,” one of his best and most-covered songs.
Few songwriters share Thompson’s lyrical dexterity. He can write about love and heartache with the best of them; he can spin a narrative, too, as he did with “Johnny’s Far Away”; he can get political (“Fergus Lang”); and he can be funny, as in “Read About Love,” a song that recalls learning about sex as a youth.
Even fewer guitarists in rock or folk can play like Thompson, who issues rhythm, leads and other punctuation fluidly, rendering the sounds of two or three guitars at once. His instrumentals were spectacular all night but a few were mind-blowing: during “Valerie,” “Johnny Far Away,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” -- the best song ever written about a motorcycle -- and “Shut Out the Lights.” At the end of “Valerio,” he sampled a bit of Erik Satie, “just to be pretentious,” he said.
Late in the show, Thompson shared bits of several songs he is writing for 14-18 Now, a U.K. organization that has commissioned artists to contribute to its commemoration of the First World War centenary. The project will be unveiled in 2016. For his contribution, Thompson extracted entries from letters and diaries and set them to music -- accounts he described as “stark and harrowing.” The music, too, was somber and ominous.
The show was stalled a few times by audience members who persisted in yelling out requests, as if he were a cover band. He jousted with them a few times -- “Who’s show is this?” -- but indulged them, too. Though he initially thought he was in St. Louis, he reoriented himself, spoke of the World Series (and disparagingly of the Giants) and delivered what he said was a first-ever for him: a live version of “Kansas City.” He then apologized for pandering: “I feel like a whore ... like a cocktail pianist.”
He ended with two that had been called for all night: “Beeswing“ and then “Cooksferry Queen,” a track from his dandy “Mock Tudor” album. On that one, as he did all night, Thompson mustered plenty of his own accompaniment, like a guitar wizard backed by a crack band.
Stony Ground; The Ghost of You Walks; Valerie; Saving the Good Stuff for You; Johnny’s Far Away; The Great Valerio; Fergus Lang; 1952 Vincent Black Lightning; Dry My Tears and Move On; I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight; Sloth; Shoot Out the Lights; Read About Love; excerpts of songs commissioned to mark the centenary of the First World War; Kansas City; Wall of Death; Beeswing; Cooksferry Queen.