Whether it be his early work with his wife Linda, or his 2014 album ‘Family’, Richard Thompson is clearly keen on working with his family in his musical life, and tonight is no exception, as he is supported by his daughter’s duo The Rails, consisting of Kami Thompson and son-in-law James Walbourne. They enter the stage and begin their set with the traditional English song ‘I Wish, I Wish’, one which is likely to be at least vaguely familiar to many due to its first verse which has been borrowed for many songs in the English folk canon. Thompson and Walbourne’s voices harmonise beautifully on this and throughout the set, and there are elements of Richard Thompson’s playing in the duo, though perhaps surprisingly more with James than with Kami. Their style brings a particularly contemporary sound to their largely traditional repertoire, though they blend in original tracks too, such as ‘Panic Attack Blues’, which Walbourne describes as being written after “a week-long bender” with Shane MacGowan at his local, and ‘Fair Warning’, a sombre story of an alcoholic who is perhaps nearing the end.
After a short intermission, Richard Thompson enters the stage wearing his signature grey beret, and is joined by The Rails for opener ‘That’s Enough,’ written for the Occupy Wall Street Movement but “written a year too late so now it’s on the ‘Where are they now?’ shelves”. It’s the first of many examples tonight of Thompson’s lyrical prowess, as he talks of lies and the ways in which the truth is obscured by “throwing fairy dust into our eyes”. It ends with a duel-like solo passed between Thompson and Walbourne, a show of two more than capable guitar players.
The duo disappear from the stage and are replaced by drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Davey Faragher, who form the rest of Thompson’s Electric Trio. They begin with Still’s ‘All Buttoned Up,’ and follow with ‘Sally B’, showing off the sheer power of the trio that would have you believe the stage is surely filled with more musicians than it is. Each player shows their technical skill throughout the set, and it may well be ‘Broken Doll’ that shows off Jerome’s unique drumming style best as he aggressively strokes a cymbal with his stick causing it to eerily groan, adding impressive atmosphere to the already somewhat unsettling music. Following this, the band break into ‘Hard on Me’ from the 1999 album ‘Mock Tudor’, and this is Faragher’s time to shine as it features a funky bass breakdown before a long and lively instrumental with all three flexing their musical muscle.
Thompson’s two bandmates then slip off the stage as he jokes “some union dispute or something!”. On his own, donning an acoustic guitar, he begins playing Fairport Convention’s epic ‘Meet on the Ledge,’ which is received excellently by the crowd and which Thompson manages to carry expertly with the thundering low-end of his guitar playing and his technique which makes it feel as though there are at least two guitarists sharing the stage. He then begins regular favourite ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, which he tells us ages “like other people’s children – they do that, don’t they?”. Despite surely having played this song hundreds of times, it sounds as fresh and sincere as ever, and is a definite highlight. As the band re-enter, Thompson once again jokes “Sorted it out then?” but a crowd member scolds Thompson for his ‘mumbling,’ to which he replies that he will in future “enunciate precisely and clearly” and reverts to a persona akin to a 1960s BBC presenter, introducing ‘Beatnik Walking’ and telling the band to “take it away, boys!”. They then begin this ‘musical walking tour of Amsterdam’ before continuing with the very jazzy ‘Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,’ written from the point of view of a down-and-out living on the streets of Thatcherite Britain, looking back on the glory days of World War Two when he was treat like a hero. Here, Faragher makes his Hofner sound impressively like a double bass, completing the feel of being in an old jazz club as Thompson laments that he “gave my youth to king and country,” and this upright sound is especially prevalent in his superb solo which again is well appreciated by the crowd – another sure highlight of the evening.
Throughout the night, Thompson’s level of concentration while playing with precision that he always does is evident, but perhaps it is most evident on the final track of the ‘Still’ album, ‘Guitar Heroes’, which he explains is a tribute to the musicians he admired in his youth – Les Paul, Chuck Berry and Django Reinhardt among them. As the band weave effortlessly between styles, Thompson leads with his usual highly-skilled guitar playing. The final track of the set is ‘If Love Whispers Your Name’, which fades almost to nothing as Thompson takes a soft solo and the song eventually dies away into silence.
After a few moments off stage, he returns to play ‘Patty Don’t You Put Me Down’, which strikes me as slightly moodier and even more aggressive than the album version, before finishing with ‘Tear Stained Letter’, which sees the usually stone-still audience of the Sage bobbing slightly in their seats and even singing the refrain towards the end! He leaves the stage again but is once again summoned back up by the audience, for him to play ‘I’ll Dry My Tears and Move On,’ a soft and somewhat obscure track also from Mock Tudor, before finishing with ‘Fork In the Road’, a bonus track from ‘Still’.
All in all, the evening has been a showcase of fantastic musicianship from all five musicians involved – both from the wonderful Rails and from the three virtuosos that make up Thompson’s Electric Trio. Catch them if you can!
Photographer – John Jobling