Gig review: Richard Thompson at Leeds Irish Centre
'It's good to see old people standing up,' Richard Thompson jokes as he arrives on stage in the first sampling of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of drily hilarious banter.
Many people in tonight’s sizable audience have probably been on board since Thompson’s earliest recordings as part of Fairport Convention. That was certainly quite a long time ago. Thompson remarks that this year marks the 50th anniversary of his first famous group’s foundation, and tonight’s generous two-hour set includes two vintage cuts from the repertoire of the most hallowed of British folk-rock collectives.
That aside, there isn’t a whiff of cosy nostalgia to the proceedings. Dressed in his trademark beret and a worn-out sleeveless denim jacket, the 69-year-old guitarist and songwriter remains very much focused on the here and now.
Most veteran musicians would risk being driven to the city limits in a generous coating of tar and feathers if they peppered their set with freshly released material.
However, Thompson can well afford to dispatch his most celebrated composition (Meet On The Ledge, a song about mortality Thompson wrote as a teenager that positively sizzles with vitality tonight) a few songs into the set and ignore many of his best-loved classics in favour of material from the brand new album 13 Rivers (“we pressed four million copies, and there are only have six left to sell to you tonight,” Thompson quips in self-deprecating reference to his enduring mainstream-averse cult appeal).
Selections such as the set-opening, twitchily muscular Bones of Gideon and the brooding, electrifying The Rattle Within prove that the tirelessly prolific Thompson maintains a productivity rate and quality control most of his contemporaries can only dream of.
Thompson also performs with energy and drive that belies his half a century in the business. By this point, you would excuse him for coasting a bit and maybe shifting some of the heavy lifting to the backing band. Backed by only bass and drums, Thompson’s biting, quicksilver, distinctly cliché-averse electric guitar – within minutes, it is glaringly obvious we’re in the presence of one of the most underrated guitar heroes in circulation – is the unrelenting engine that drives the proceedings, culminating in a jaw-dropping bout of extended soloing during Put It There, Pal that more than matches the stinging brutality of the tune’s narrative whilst also sounding strikingly melodic, even pretty.
Three delicately performed solo acoustic songs – peaking with Beeswing, a deceptively languid tune housing (a common songwriting recipe of Thompson’s) a tale about as stark as they come – are offered as an olive branch to anyone shocked by just quite hard this artist often described as a folk musician rocks tonight.
On tonight’s evidence, Thompson deserves to be described – in a contemporary slang twist on the title of his most celebrated song – as a genuine ledge.