Richard Thompson

Show Review: Richard Thompson at Ram’s Head on Stage

Show Reviews

Richard Thompson at Ram’s Head on Stage – February 23, 2023

A Richard Thompson concert is not for the faint of heart.  There is no denying that his music tends to focus on the sadder things in life.  But, as a grinning Thompson told a sold-out Ram’s Head on Stage in Annapolis (MD) the other night, all his songs are cheerful – if you listen correctly.  He also suggested that it helps to lower the bar, and to treat “anything short of suicidal as uplifting.”

But there is something about sad songs, especially great sad songs such as Thompson’s, that can and does move us deeply.  That can and does speak to audiences on a fundamental, almost primal level. That can take you to unexpected, and memorable, places.

That is precisely what Thompson did for nearly two hours, armed only with his beat-up Lowden acoustic guitar.  With a 20-song set including numbers written as long ago as 1969 and as recently as last year, Thompson made an inarguable case for his place as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.

Thompson’s lyrics tell a story with almost impossible precision.  He can say all he needs to say in one or two lines, like this from the show opener “Misunderstood”: “I thought she was saying good luck she was saying goodbye.”  Or this, from Beeswing, “even the Gypsy caravan was too much settling down.”

Thompson, of course, is an Englishman, albeit one who now lives in New Jersey.  That duality is manifest in many of his songs, which are at once deeply and immutably English and just as deeply and powerfully universal.  You don’t need to know that “sleeping rough” is English slang for sleeping outside without a tent or other projection to recognize the hardship it involves.  His music is deeply rooted in the English folk tradition, but is fully at home on U.S. stages.  It’s no surprise that Thompson has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Americana Music Association.

The sad songs came one after another, but Thompson’s sly grin and regular laugh kept the night from being oppressive.  It helps that Thompson himself is in on the joke.  He offered, for example, a sneak preview of “The Day That I Give In,” a new song recorded in Woodstock for an upcoming release,  by promising that it was “as depressing as anything I’ve ever written.”  In fact, he promised that “all of the songs on the new album are equally depressing.”

That’s a high standard to reach!  Perhaps his best-known song, “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” is a love song à la Thompson: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love and bond over classic motorcycle, boy dies, and girl rides off alone.  His “fun, modern, cruise ship sea shanty,” “Johnny’s Far Away on the Rolling Sea,” which he said he included as a tribute to Annapolis’ naval tradition, is pretty much a celebration of infidelity:   “Now Johnny’s cruising out to sea/And he believes in chastity—for some/The wealthy widows bill and coo/He fends off one or two, and then succumbs.”

And then there’s “Walking on The Wire,” with the devastating lyric “I hand you my ball and chain/ and you just give me that same old refrain/where’s the justice/where’s the sense/when all the pain is on my side of the fence.”  One writer, who included “Walking on the Wire” on his list of “the saddest songs,” called it “The clear sound of a marriage falling apart.”

Although it was a solo show, there were times when the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson was nearly upstaged.  That challenge came from Richard Thompson, the guitarist.  For example, he offered a new song, “If I Could Live My Life Again,” toward the top of his set, which featured three short, impactful  guitar solos, each with a distinct sound, and each driving the song forward.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who can manipulate each of their ten fingers totally independently of each other, and I know I’ve never heard tones like Thompson is able to wring out from his guitar.  From time to time, he struck faux guitar hero poses; but make no mistake, Thompson is a real guitar hero.

Somewhere in the United States right now, a 73-year-old man (Bruuuuuce!) is entertaining audiences with a 19-piece band, including backup singers and a horn section.  At Ram’s Head, another 73-year-old man did the same thing armed only with his voice and an acoustic guitar.  And it did not occur to anyone in the sold-out crowd that anything more was necessary.

Richard Thompson is on tour through August.


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