Richard Thompson (solo guitar & voice) – Acoustic Classics [TrackList follows] – Beeswing 766930016527, 56:34 [7/22/14] ****1/2:
British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson has gradually developed into a world-class musician since he debuted as a teenager in 1967 as a member of England’s folk-rock outfit, Fairport Convention. Thompson’s solo work has garnered critical acclaim and songwriting honors, including an Ivor Novello Award and a lifetime achievement accolade from BBC Radio; in 2001, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to music; and his compositions have been covered by Del McCoury, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw, and more. His output is consistent and his concerts are filled with audiences who revel in his lyrical creativity and his prowess on both electric and acoustic guitar (he’s been listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 greatest guitarists).
On his latest sojourn, the 14-track, hour-long Acoustic Classics, Thompson proffers something for his long-time fans. The solo guitar-and-voice album is on Thompson’s own imprint, Beeswing, and was formerly sold only at his stage shows to provide his listeners a treasure trove of Thompson songs recorded in an unplugged format akin to what he often offers in live performances. Luckily, it’s now available to everyone. The set list is a wonderful mixture of material, from favorites such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to lesser-known gems like “From Galway to Graceland.” Throughout, Thompson brings a fresh perspective to older songs, showcases his deft fretboard and finger-style wizardry, and reveals his strong narrative skills.
Thompson opens with three numbers from the era when he did duo projects with his then-wife, Linda Thompson. Thompson delivers a bit of intensity to “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” about a blue-collar worker who wants to spend some time getting drunk, dancing, fighting, and otherwise enjoying a two-day binge. Thompson’s slightly rough pick-and-fingers guitar technique accentuates the song’s central character, a man who is also somewhat coarse. Desperation and cynical hope permeate the other opening cuts. “Walking on a Wire” reflects on one man’s emotional agony, mirrored by Thompson’s perceptive vocals and poignant guitar: his solo in the bridge is a highlight. Even more harrowing is the carnival tale, “Wall of Death,” where Thompson states that existing on the edge and taking chances “is the nearest to being alive.”
Thompson’s most memorable pieces center on people who reside with broken dreams, suffer from disheveled psychology or are anti-heroes. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” comes from Thompson’s 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, and conveys the story of James and Molly, romantically entwined over a mutual passion for James’ prized possession, the titular motorcycle. Thompson sidesteps either satire or sentimentality as he relates his account of devotion and loyalty. No matter how many times Thompson does this song, he always adds an inventive, subtle element. “From Galway to Graceland” is an obscure but impressive slice of tragedy and dark humor about an eccentric Irish woman who believes she’s Elvis Presley’s one true darling. “And she sang ‘Love Me Tender,’ it was the song she loved best,” Thompson sings, “She had ‘Elvis I Love You’ tattooed on her breast.” After too many nights at Presley’s gravesite, she’s eventually led away in handcuffs, complaining “My dear man, are you out of your mind? Don’t you know that we’re married; see, I’m wearing his ring. I come from Galway to Memphis to be with the King.”
Another unforgettable lady braces through “Valerie,” about a femme fatale who has red fingernails, teeth like a cat and an unquenchable craving for money. Initially, Thompson performed this with his backing band as an energetic rocker with the vibe of early rockabilly. On this new solo acoustic translation, Thompson uses fast fingerpicking and fiery strums to replicate the main riff, and then concludes with an instrumental section which has a ringing and pinging guitar solo which hits just as hard as his electric version. Thompson fittingly ends with the sublime “Dimming of the Day,” from the 1975 Richard and Linda Thompson LP, Pour Down Like Silver. Gilmour, Raitt and Emmylou Harris have all interpreted this, and no wonder. The ode to longing and heartache is palpable. Acoustic Classics sounds magnificent. Thompson’s acoustic guitar is vibrant and crystal clear. His closely-mic’ed guitar is tender when needed, and sharper on more forceful numbers. His bass notes resonate, while his higher-register chords flash brightly. The proceedings were obviously recorded to emphasize a “live” ambiance, where Thompson’s animated lead guitar and his underscored, rhythmic guitar embellishments are the centerpiece; and every nuance of his lyrics are in distinct focus.
TrackList: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight; Walking on a Wire; Wall of Death; Down Where the Drunkards Roll; One Door Opens; Persuasion; 1952 Vincent Black Lightning; I Misunderstood; From Galway to Graceland; Valerie; Shoot out the Lights; Beeswing; When the Spell Is Broken; Dimming of the Day
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