Everyone owes themselves at least one Richard Thompson concert, preferably in an intimate setting such as Club Helsinki Hudson. Thompson’s one of the great guitarists of our time, a unique songwriter with a rich, vibrant baritone, and the subtleties of those talents may be muted in a larger venue. He’s also very witty and regularly engages with the audience, bonuses we don’t get in the larger venues he often plays.
That said, Thompson strode onstage with a single acoustic guitar and delivered his first two songs, “Stony Ground” and “The Ghost of You Walks,” without uttering a word. Thompson’s clean, lightning-fast picking always sends shivers down my spine, and by “Valerie,” his third song, the audience was spellbound. I have “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” on a mixtape in my car, so it comes up four or five times a week, but when his rich vocals dropped or rose an octave, the song was still thrilling.
Thompson’s getting a new album ready for release, and from it we heard “Josephine” and “Beatnik Walking,” a song about his adventures in Holland, both evidence that the album will be a good one. Thompson introduced one song as “a walking tour of Amsterdam,” but frankly, with Thompson’s vocals and guitar behind it, he could sing a Fodor’s Guide and make it work. During one of my personal favorites, “Saving the Good Stuff For You,” I realized how much Thompson’s picking owes to the Irish fiddle tradition—you can really hear the melodies and imagine them on a violin.
Between songs, Thompson teased the audience and poked good-natured fun at himself. Whether talking about the non-existent sex education in the UK during the ’50s (“Read About Love”) or introducing a song about a repellent real estate developer (“Fergus Lang”), this songwriter always has a twinkle in his eye.
Helsinki Hudson is set up like a bowl, with steeply raked tiers looking out or down on the stage. With a capacity of only 250, unless Andre the Giant sits directly in front of you, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Standing room, in the back at the bar or along two walls, is sparse if the club puts tables on the small dance floor directly in front of the stage, as they did for Thompson, and seats sell out quickly. I wanted to have dinner, but by the time we called, Helsinki had sold out. I stood, stage right, with a fabulous view of Thompson to my left and a braised lamb shank to my right. I left hungry, but at least I had a satisfying portion of Richard Thompson.
– Suzanne Cadgène