Cambridge Corn Exchange, Monday 30th January
When I first saw Richard Thompson, at Glastonbury in 2003, he was supported by a full band. The music was all purples and blues and reds flowing over the edge of the stage, and a moth glittered like a slow-motion shuriken in the lights at the top of the tent. I wanted to see the bright lights, and I was seeing them. I have no idea what songs he played, but the set seemed to last for ever.
I saw him again at the Corn Exchange in May 2004 (and completely failed to write about it on LiveJournal), this time performing solo. Every word he sang was crystal-clear. A million notes rained down from his guitar and the entire room remained spellbound, faces upturned in the deluge. I cried at the end of "Vincent Black Lightning 1952". So did he.
With those two gigs to live up to, it was probably inevitable that this one felt like a compromise: neither a spotlighted solo nor a richly textured band, but somewhere inbetween. Don't get me wrong, it was still a superb gig; his guitar playing still effortlessly wrapped the listener around its fifteen fingers ... but at times it felt as though the bass was muddying the clear flowing stream of guitar music. A double shame, really, when either musician alone could have played a great solo concert. The songs (and it's all about the songs) still shone through, though, from the timeless melodic storytelling of "Crazyman Michael" to the bitter politics of "Outside of the Inside".
The set-list was as varied as you'd expect from a songwriter with thirty-odd years of great songs to choose from (though he might just have been exaggerating about the 47-disc boxed set), but the newer songs from the latest album Front Parlour Ballads blended seamlessly with the back-catalogue, instant classics. There was only one song completely new to me last night, but it was a good one: the delightful raft of ridiculous rhymes that is The Hots for the Smarts", during which addedentry practically had to restrain me from throwing my spectacles at the stage.
Not that the Corn Exchange's seating would have really permitted such fangirlish shenanigans: miles from the stage, our view was unobscured, but it was sometimes hard to feel fully engaged with the music when we barely had room to tap a toe, let alone polka (polka!) in the aisles.
The review we glanced at over the shoulders of the people in the seats in front of us gave Thompson four out of five. I can't really argue with that: he was brilliant, but he could have been better. Or rather (since my glass of gin and tonic was certainly more than half full), just because he's been better doesn't mean he wasn't still brilliant.
A cynical listener might suppose that Thompson chose his support act to show his own breadth of talent to even better advantage. Soulful country singer Jeb Loy Nichols produced a gentle and mellow sound, with lyrics that were occasionally poignant or quirky enough to demand attention; but I'd be prepared to swear that he only used two chords throughout his entire set, and while he might have been at home on the range, we're certainly not talking dynamic range here. All in all, quite a letdown, particularly after the support act for Richard Thompson's last tour, Jim Moray.