Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Thursday, Nov. 29, 8 p.m., $33–$36, Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw, www.hawriverballroom.com
For fifty years, Richard Thompson has occupied a unique space in the canon of contemporary popular music. His latest record, 13 Rivers, is an exploration of and continued love affair with the electric guitar, which has garnered him much of his fanbase over the course of his career. The album’s six-minute opener, “The Storm Won’t Come,” is an instant reminder of Thompson’s trademark sound. He’s perfected the ability to build and release with vivid lyricism and inimitable guitar playing.
After rising to fame with his British folk-rock band, Fairport Convention, and through a handful of cult classics made with Linda Thompson, his ex-wife, Thompson went on to release more than two dozen solo records. Not only is he nearly peerless in his prolific nature, but very few have achieved his level of consistent quality.
13 Rivers is one of Thompson’s most cohesive albums in many years. As gifted a lyricist as he is a guitarist, he explores the human soul and inner turmoil through references to religion and love. One of the defining qualities of his work is the impulsive nature of his songwriting. Not one to over-analyze the lyrical nature of the work, he allows each song to take on a life of its own.
“In some ways, I’m too close to it to comment,” he says. “But if you ask me two years down the road, I might know what the song is about. There’s really something subconscious to the process.”
Having honed his craft on his father’s jazz and traditional Scottish music collection, Thompson’s sense of guitar exploration is rarely confined by any particular sound—except maybe his own. Much of that has to do with his youthful exuberance when playing the electric guitar.
“It’s fun!” Thompson says with a laugh. “I know my way around it. I’m always fascinated by the musical process and what happens when people play together. Why does it do something, or why does it not do something? As a musician, you have to keep your sense of fun and exploration alive.”
While a lot of his time on the road has been spent solo with an acoustic guitar, Thompson also has mainstays in bassist Taras Prodaniuk, who’s played with Thompson for a dozen years, and drummer Michael Jerome, who’s worked with Thompson for twenty. He’s dubbed the ensemble his Electric Trio.
“The first day of rehearsal, you know someone is perfect for the job,” Thompson says. “They were both no-brainers, really, and I think we’ve developed a pretty good understanding over the years. That’s something you can’t replicate.”
The approach to performing with this band after a stretch performing solo, however, can be a significant shift of momentum, Thompson says.
“Solo, you must draw the audience into you. You’re in a quiet place where the audience can share the experience more intimately. With a band, it’s a louder thing,” he says. “In both of those realms, there is a possibility to beat people over the head with it. With a band, you can really create some contrast, some real quiet moments that can reflect that kind of stillness that comes along with playing acoustic music.”
Despite a half-century-long career, Thompson’s time on the road hasn’t seemed to slow down. There is no wavering in his voice about his eternal commitment to his craft, and it shows in the studio and on stage. But a certain element of magic reveals itself in Thompson’s live performances
“With the studio, you’re making a statement. This is how I define the song. When you play it live, the definitions can vary. It can go on from there and create a different path than that original thing,” Thompson says, noting how performing a song in a live setting can change the way people feel about it. “People say, ‘When’s the live album coming out? We’ve got the record, but we prefer it live.’ There’s valid points to that. Sometimes, you play a song for a month or two and it’s a little different at the end of the experience. It’s evolved a bit, it’s gotten tighter, or there are even new ideas in it.”
To put the time, energy, and love into a career the way Thompson has is an accomplishment not shared by many. His recordings weren’t always appreciated in their time, but they’ve held up as vital documents of scenes, styles, and feelings that would’ve otherwise been lost to history. Thompson has excelled both lyrically, stylistically, and as a performer—tearing apart the human condition through almost every decade of recorded music as it appears today. His performances have never lacked, his records have never felt phoned in, and at sixty-nine years old, his work feels largely more important many of his peers that achieved greater commercial success.
But that’s part of Thompson’s charm. There’s no bitterness in his voice or condescension toward others—just a man with a satisfaction and assuredness about his singular talent.