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Richard Thompson “By Request Only” At City Winery, Wednesday, November 16th, 2016, Reviewed

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With Greg Allman canceling his ten night residency at City Winery, the room had some openings to fill in a hurry and Richard Thompson got two nights to perform by request only shows and they sold out just about instantaneously.

The “By Request” concept had audience members writing song requests on strips of paper provided by the club, Richard picking em at random out of a bowl, and playing em on his acoustic guitar. With help from a pal at a computer, printing out lyrics he didn’t know, Richard expanded right out of his safe zone. Of course, we knew the former Fairport Convention leader could perform just about anything at the drop of a hat because we’d seen his “1000 Years of Popular Music” and figured if he could play the Britney Spears (written by Max Martin!) “Oops… I Did It Again”, he would probably be fine with “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Sure, Richard was more than capable, but the evening was never much more than an extended parlor game. A good one. With gifts. But a stalled one, without momentum. And without the Thompson greatest hits catalog, only a very late “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” went off script.

Richard suffered from the old water into wine problem, once you’ve shown you can do it, even a miracle is a just another trick. During one of the evening’s greatest moments, Thompson performed the double track guitar of “And Your Bird Can Sing” BY HIMSELF. It was the sort of off hand moment of guitar splendor that reminds you, if you’d forgotten, Thompson is one of the great guitarists of his generation and his generation includes Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page just to mention the “Js”. The song soared and stalled and ended, as did many other songs here. A run at “I Will”, also by the Beatles, aborted fast (it goes up an octave, not straight).

Even so, he wasn’t really better on his own material, though, again really, how much can you complain about the opening, brutal “She Twists The Knife Again” or later “Beeswing”? Richard has a very strong voice and he has something some singers are just lucky to own: he sounds passionate whatever he sings. The voice is deep and yet it floats on top of the song, it gives import to words of love, sex, and betrayal, that only improves from the lyric concern itself.

If nothing else, the “By Request” performances allows Thompson to go deep into his huge catalog, “Beeswing” is from 1992, “Knife” from 85. I think it is fair to claim that they aren’t part of his usual setlist though he performed a number of these songs on his Acoustic Classics (which broke UK Top 10 in 2014).Yes, sometimes it was just worth your time and Thompson himself is a very, very witty man. He is much funnier than other pop stars, Mick Jagger for one, Elvis Costello for another, who think they’re funny. But after awhile he crosses the line between self-effacement and lying. Sure, he doesn’t hit the charts very often, but he is about as successful as a musician can be, so knock it off.

The heart of the evening were the covers. Sometimes it made it all worthwhile. A run at Lonnie Donegan’s proletariat masterpiece “My Old Man’s A Dustman” (translation: my dad’s a garbage collector) was worth your $60 investment single handedly, and a one man “Gimme Shelter” (“I saw the Stones in 1964, they were terrible”) proved beyond reason how protean and adept the great guitarist is. I could’ve lived without “Bad To The Bone”, though the audience seemed to enjoy it, and “Streets Of London” kinda sucked. Worse were the multiverse snoozers from early Fairport Convention, which had me nodding off though I’m sure the big time fans were flipping. “Tan Lin” always made it all the way because of Sandy Denny, if Richard couldn’t sell it it was the wrong song at the wrong time and there you go: that’s the problem with By Request shows.

Richard noted that the trick wasn’t remembering the song but remembering the key, and the other trick might be figuring out how to pace the evening. Next year is the 50th Anniversary of Fairport Convention and they are playing (at Glastonbury is my bet), if you wanna hear ye olde English folk crossover that might be a much better place for it.  As parlor tricks go it was cute, as Richard Thompson shows go… not so much.

Grade: B-

 

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