IN TUNE: “I know why you came,” Richard Thompson said, opening the second of three sold-out, all-request shows at City Winery. “You’re the kind of people who rubberneck at traffic accidents.”
The stabs that Richard John Thompson (OBE) took at songs outside his realm last night were hardly rear-enders, although he needed help from the faithful on the lyrics to the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Still, he took the song’s turns as if he’d written them.
Last time around, Richard included a segment in each show featuring a clutch of songs from a particular album. This time he had the packed house write requests on thin strips of paper that the wait staff gathered and dumped into a punch bowl onstage.
Thompson grabbed a few slips at a time, in order to avoid “suicidal possibilities from too many depressing songs” in a row. Random numbers in succession don’t work well, anyway, so Thompson grouped them carefully.
He laughed at some of the requests, dropping slips to the floor without identifying them. Others he placed on the music stand. At times he gave a slip to an assistant who ducked out, printed the lyrics and then shuttled them to the stage.
“Time for an iPad,” someone shouted.
The majority of numbers, not surprisingly, were among Thompson’s most beloved. And his playing was as ephemereal as ever, those nimble fingers shifting from gentle picking to hard strumming and back again. Nary a false note — yet never rote.
This may have been one of the few nights he’s ever played “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” so early in a set. It was up fourth, after the opener, “Back Street Slide” (from his magnificent “Shoot Out the Lights”) and the heartbreaking “Waltzing’s For Dreamers” (from 1988’s “Amnesia”):
“Oh play me a blue song and fade down the light
I’m sad as a proud man can be sad tonight
Just let me dream on, oh just let me sway
While the sweet violins and the saxophones play
And Miss, you don’t know me, but can’t we pretend
That we care for each other, till the band reach the end.”
Then came “Pretty Ballerina,” a hit 45 years ago for The Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”).
As promised, there weren’t too many laments in a row: Thompson lit into this author’s request, the snarly “Turning of the Tide,” followed by a hot, smoldering “Shoot Out the Lights.”
Another of many magnificent — and, yes, melancholy — moments followed, with a version Fairport Convention’s “Farewell, Farewell,” that, for just this night, made one listener for a moment forget Sandy Denny’s angelic vocal.
“I’ve never sung this before in public — in the bath occasionally,” Thompson said of his former band’s 1970 recording.
With the rapt audience in his palm, Thompson followed with a song worthy of Fairport, “Beeswing,” a rare thing that surely caused many an old soak’s eyes to mist.
Speaking of which: “God Loves a Drunk,” from 1991’s “Rumor and Sigh,” fit snugly with a few old-time ballads and laments handed down by Thompson’s Scottish father. One, in fact, was a late 1930s Scottish folk standard, “Mingulay Boat Song,” which Thompson said invites listeners to imagine the boatsmen of that time pulling their oars in earnest as they neared the island.
“I Misunderstood,” “Wall of Death” and the exquisitely optimistic “Persuasion” certainly pleased the longtimers. But there were plenty of more recent tunes, as well.
Thompson also dusted off the urbane “Hots for the Smarts,” a Cole-Porter-meets-Bertrand-Russell-type ditty:
“I need a polymath called Cindy or Cath
Who likes her Plato not too platonic
An autodidact who can add and subtract
While sipping her Tolstoy and tonic.”
Pleasant surprises included “Summertime Blues,” in the original Eddie Cochran arrangement, as well as his own amusing “A Solitary Life,” from 2005’s “Front Parlour Ballads” and the hilarious “Dragging the River” from a year later:
“You thought that you were smart, little tart
When you threw me over for Shorty McKay
Now the Police are out there dragging the river
Looking for a body, five foot two
There’ve been complaints about the drinking water
So they’re dragging the river for you.”
Having delighted his audience no end, the master surprised them with a chestnut that brought smiles to many, including Greenwich Village folk hero Happy Traum.
It also brought a robust, eclectic evening toward its close — as it does this review: