Bloomington, Indiana isn’t a big city. It isn’t Chicago, or New York, or even St. Louis. So often, when a major musical act announces tourdates, I look at them and sigh because there isn’t even one within 200 miles of me. But … we do get some great stuff nonetheless. And in some ways, we’re even luckier than those big-city folks. Because we don’t have the huge variety to choose from, those of us who have broad taste in music often find ourselves going to concerts by people we might have passed up if we’d had other choices or if we’d been jaded about how many shows were available to us – and those shows are often phenomenally good. (I’m thinking of performers like Janelle Monae, whose show I bought a ticket for in an “aw what the heck why not” moment and who blew my socks off.) And there’s something – there’s a whole lot of something – to be said for seeing a world-class artist in a relatively intimate venue with great sound, with free parking within two blocks of the venue, and a ten-minute drive (if all the stoplights are red and you have to pull over for an ambulance along the way) from home. And that was the kind of show I had tonight.
Richard Thompson has performed in Bloomington many times, going back some thirty years when he played at Second Story (a great, though hardly luxurious, live music venue & bar so named because it was on the second floor of the old Moose Lodge; the first floor was taken up by Bullwinkle’s, a gay bar whose disco music would come thumping through the floor during set breaks and sometimes during quiet songs) very early in his first American tour. I didn’t go to that now-legendary show – in fact I don’t think I was twenty-one yet, so I wouldn’t have been able to get in (you will say that shouldn’t have stopped me, and I will point out that I have always been perhaps too much of a law-abiding citizen for my own good) – and for whatever reason, though I’ve long been aware of Richard Thompson as one of the great guitarists & songwriters of our time, I’ve just never made it to any of his Bloomington shows.
One thing about having incredibly broad taste in music is that there are a lot – a LOT – of artists I’m somewhat familiar with, and appreciate, but have never taken the time to dive in and become a serious fan of. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that there is so freaking much great music out there that it is just impossible to listen to it all. (Well, not and keep my day job.) Sometimes I get the opportunity to catch one of these folks when they come through town, and I actually kind of enjoy being the casual (but appreciative!) fan in the midst of the serious followers, especially since I know what it’s like to be one of the serious followers. I had that experience at a John Prine show a couple of years ago – I had a really good seat and think most of the people around me had travelled to see the show – and that was the case again tonight when I saw Richard Thompson at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington.
I know a few of Thompson’s songs, and I knew to expect some crazy amazing guitar virtuosity. It was billed as a solo acoustic show, which indeed it was – in fact, he didn’t even swap out guitars, just tuned and retuned the same one for every song. (He did have a few effects boxes though he didn’t seem to fiddle with them much.) One guy and one guitar, creating a wall of sound to rival most bands.
Guitar virtuosity, oh yeah, the guy has got it. But for the most part he doesn’t play just to show off. Like all the greatest musicians (and Jimi Hendrix comes to mind here, since we’re talking guitarists), he gives each song what it needs, whether that means laying back and allowing silence to surround each note, or just playing simple chords while letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting, or playing something so complex, so blindingly fast, and so utterly clean that I can’t quite figure out what hit me.
He’s also funny (early in the show he said something like “This song is from my next album, and so were the first two that I played. The rest of the album is crap.”) and did I mention the brilliant songwriting? What struck me, even though I’m a word person (and his lyrics are great), was the musical brilliance – really cool chords and complex musical structures that went to unexpected places, didn’t always resolve in predictable ways, but were so evocative and fresh. (I have friends – hi, Dave – that are musically far geekier than I and could explain what that’s all about in very technical terms. But this is my review, so you’re stuck with things like “cool chords.” Deal with it.)
I think “Valerie” was the first song that made me feel like I might get blisters on my fingers just from watching him play. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was also a real showcase for him and perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser. “Wall of Death” might have been my favorite; I’ve always loved that song and recall hearing Shawn Colvin do a very good cover of it way back when. But in some ways the emotional heart of the show rested in a lovely and loving rendition of the Fairport Convention classic (named by the BBC as the best folk song ever) “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s one of those songs that, after so many years, has gathered layers of memory and meaning around it – and yet it still sounds fresh. Really a beautiful moment in the concert. And it reminded me that, like Springsteen, Thompson is one of those rare artists who can put together a setlist drawn from three or four decades of music – all of it very much alive and relevant, including the very old and the very new.
Thompson took two encores, buoyed by a very enthusiastic audience (Bloomington has a lot of RT fans!) – and closed the show by playing “The Weight” as a celebratory singalong, dedicating it afterwards to Levon. I was reminded that about a year ago, in the same theater, I heard Mavis Staples and her band performing the heck out of that same song – an equally great, though very different, performance. I walked out of the theater feeling lucky, lucky, lucky to live in a town where we get enough great musical performances to keep us happy, but not so many that we forget to appreciate the magic when it happens.
And now I clearly have got to listen to some more Richard Thompson. So I will happily accept album recommendations in the comments – his catalog is a little overwhelming, to say the least!