Richard Thompson Takes Old Town School of Folk with British Bravado and Old-Man-Leather Sex Appeal

Richard Thompson acoustic
Photo credit: Pamela Littky

Richard Thompson started playing music professionally in 1967 with Fairport Convention. He was 18. Fifty years of performing, touring, and recording 40+ albums should leave a musician spent. Rather than tired, Richard Thompson is tried.

Thompson played a two hour set including two separate encores to a sold out auditorium at Old Town School of Folk Music on April 10th, his third show in Chicago in two days. He shouldn’t have wanted to play for so long, the crowd shouldn’t have demanded a second encore, and his guitar playing shouldn’t have been so flawless. The crowd shouldn’t have loved his crappy half formed attempt at jokes, and they should have been put off by his occasionally sexist lyrics. But Richard Thompson is somehow incredibly charming and compelling. His impeccable fingerpicking and percussion, his narrative but concise lyrics coupled with cocksure mannerisms make his sillier lyrics okay.

I was surprised that he didn’t play many songs from his 2015 album Still, which was produced in Chicago by Jeff Tweedy. Thompson is so prolific that he really can’t play more than two songs from any one album if he wants to touch on each period in his career. That’s why he plays so many request shows, like his Sunday performance at the Old Town School. To his credit he made a big effort to respond to the shouts and calls from audience members hoping for songs he wrote 20 years ago, songs he performed in the 60s, and songs that would never make a Greatest Hits album.

He opened the concert with When the Spell is Broken, and a song that I always thought was a bit overt and tacky was made tender by the smooth and earnest sound of his very British voice. He went into Walking on a Wire, a song that ought to show his vocal shortcomings. However, Richard Thompson singing Walking on a Wire felt like a different emotional experience than the earlier version with Linda Thompson. He made some tired banter, and launched into Crocodile Tears, a song that only someone over 50 could enjoy. When he played Valerie a rock and roll bravado appeared in the little rhythmic jerk of his guitar neck. The audience seemed to reach a climax for energy and satisfaction and they stayed at this level, frequently jumping out of their seats, whooping and throwing their arms in the air until Thompson finished his second encore and announced that that would be it for the night.

Richard Thompson’s masterful guitar playing is indisputable and arresting– but his lyrics are fun, compelling, and somewhat sexy in an old man–leather way. Someone called out asking for Matty Groves a 17th century border ballad that Thompson recorded in the late 60s with Fairport Convention, and he answered with a gorgeous rendition.

Before Thompson played “I want to see the Bright Lights” he announced to the audience that he ought to have had a hit in the 80s. Instead his career resembles a bowling split with the early success of Richard and Linda Thompson on one end, his recent wildly popular acoustic re-recording of his career’s major hits on the other end, and more than 30 commercially irrelevant albums in between. This was Thompson’s self deprecating way of introducing one of his old hits he thought the audience was likely to have forgotten. But the feeling that swelled in the concert hall in response was ebullient affirmation, as if to say we were always listening and we think all your songs are hits.

If Thompson’s two hour solo acoustic set was testament to his 50 year career as a British folk rock powerhouse, Joan Shelley’s soft and sweet opening set with guitarist Nathan Salsburg seemed a harbinger of a notable career to come. In further contrast to Thompson, Shelley’s clear siren-like voice is sufficient sound to make a crowd spellbound for hours, and Salsburg’s delicate and precise guitar accompaniment is delightful addition. Her songs are memory-infused, detail-rich poetry. She sings mostly melancholic end of summer elegies and lullabies with an Appalachian heart. Shelley performed one tune from her upcoming self titled album also produced by Jeff Tweedy. She’ll be back at Old Town School of Folk Music promoting that album with her own concert on June 3rd which should not be missed.

Emma Terhaar
Emma Terhaar