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Electric Man: The Everyday Brilliance of Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson Electric Joe's Pub
Photo by Pamela Littky

The first impression you get when you hear a Richard Thompson song is that the man has lived. When I say that, I don’t mean that he’s spent his life indulging in drugs and alcohol and living the rock star lifestyle that so many people fantasize about; I mean that he’s lived a real, normal life. He’s loved, he’s lost, he’s fallen down and gotten right back up again. Aside from his impressive guitar chops and his taste in hats, there isn’t a whole lot that separates Richard Thompson from anyone else. That’s the sort of thing that appeals to the die-hard fans who hang on to every note he plays, but it’s arguably what kept him from being a superstar in a time when the guitarist literally was God. So many casual music fans want larger than life heroes, the kind whose posters adorn the rooms of young, obsessive fans. That was never the sort of thing that Richard Thompson wanted from himself. In a musical landscape that has always been rife with liars, Thompson may be the closest we’ve ever gotten to an honest man. 

From The Fairport Convention through Shoot Out The Lights all the way up to his latest album, Electric, Richard Thompson’s been the sort of artist who bares his heart and soul out on record and onstage. His statements aren’t always life-altering, but they’re more or less him. As he’s gotten older, his lyrics have become more universal in nature, a far cry from the embittered, weary soul heard on his albums from the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, he’s only become more gifted as a musician, especially as an arranger of music. Electric’s “My Enemy” doesn’t make impact on Thompson’s lyrics alone; it’s the arrangement, anchored by tasteful guitar and delicate percussion that hammer in the notion of despair that comes from constantly craving conflict in your life. It’s raw, it’s visceral, and-above all else-it’s real.

When playing live, Thompson gets a little showier; he is one of the world’s best living guitarists, and he has a reputation to hold up. Even so, while the solos get longer, the songs only get better. At his record release show at Joe’s Pub, Electric’s more rocking numbers took center stage. The looping, twisted “Sally D” got an even more sinister edge than on record, while the insistent stomp of “Stony Ground”  got all the more infectious. But even as Thompson’s fingers ran up and down the neck of his guitar, dazzling the crowd at every turn, the songs remained the focal point of his performance.  No one goes to see Richard Thompson to merely be impressed by a great guitarist; they go to hear a man recall the trials and tribulations of a life they’ve all lived put in more beautiful terms than they thought was possible.

-Kevin Korber

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