Opening for an act like Richard Thompson, a man who has been at the forefront of the folk rock movement for five decades now, could easily overwhelm the unprepared. Luckily, with five albums already under their belt, and a wealth of good (and bad!) touring experience, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker know what they are doing, and perform a brisk set of vocal and guitar numbers to whet the appetite of tonights crowd. We’re here for a night of stripped-back folk rock numbers, and this duo are the ideal contrast and compliment to tonights headliner. Rather than being, as Ms Clarke herself put it so succinctly, “beautiful, but rather pointless”, they’re charming, melancholy, self-aware and really rather lovely. They play well, they sound great, the audience offer eerie silence during each number, followed by enthusiastic applause at the end, and “Chicago” is the stand out on what is a rather compact but perfectly formed set.
Following Clarke and Walker, refreshments are purchased, and there is rising expectation for tonights headliner, which given a fair portion of the audience have evidently seen him many times down the years, bodes well for the rest of this evening.
There are some acts that everyone, regardless of their musical tastes should witness in a live setting at least once. Self-confessed folk rock dinosaur Richard Thompson has been a part of the music industry for fifty years, and where some acts of a similar vintage try and obscure their fading talents behind eye-boggling stage sets, theatrics and light shows, on this tour Thompson has followed his habit of a lifetime and avoided all the bullshit distractions, instead delivering a bare bones honest show which is just the man himself serving up selections of his songbook unaccompanied on an empty stage. It’s just the man himself on the bare stage with just his acoustic guitar to back him up. The one acoustic guitar (there’s no switching between guitars during tonight’s gig, such things are for lesser talents than Mr Thompson). There’s absolutely no place for Richard Thompson to hide if he has an off-night, and you have to admire that, even if folk rock isn’t necessarily your thing.
It should go without saying that after fifty years in the music industry, Richard Thompson is comfortable with his place in the musical firmament. He knows his audience, and his audience knows him. He’s a relaxed presence on stage, yet is charismatic enough to fill the stage and connect directly with his audience. He lampoons his perceived lack of commercial success, pays tribute to deceased bandmates (as stunning as his version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is this evening, he confesses that the late great Sandy Denny did it better), pokes fun at his stylistic limitations (much like Lemmy confessed that Motorhead only had three types of songs, fast and loud, mid-paced and loud, and slow and loud, Thompson claims his songs are limited to slow and miserable, mid-paced and miserable and quick and miserable), plugs his new albums and absolutely entertains his devoted audience, who hang on his every word.
As for the audience, there’s a fair portion here tonight who have followed Thompson since his Fairport Convention days, and others that have turned on to him during his lengthy solo career. There’s no such thing as a fair-weather Richard Thompson fan, you’re either on-board with him, or you’re not. Applause after each song is rapturous, but quickly quietened in anticipation of the next song, each of which are met with some slight cheers before they dissolve into a reverential silence as full attention is given to Thompson’s age-defyingly strong voice and superlative guitar playing. As well received as Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker were earlier in the evening, this is Richard Thompson’s crowd and everyone in attendance tonight will want to see him every time he plays a venue within travelling distance of them.
Tonight is not a night for cheap gimmicks, grandstanding, or theatrics, tonight is about the power of one man, a guitar, and one of the finest songbooks in popular song. While there’s not many in attendance tonight for whom this would have been their first Richard Thompson gig, I have to confess to being one of them, and trust me, it certainly won’t be the last time I see him live.