Judge Russell Engebretson is still a bit nervous while riding the Wall Of Death.
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
-- Excerpt from "Wall Of Death" by Richard Thompson.
Richard Thompson and his band were filmed live on January 2011 at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow as part of the annual Celtic Connections festival. The first half of The Richard Thompson Band: Live at the Celtic Connection (Blu-ray) is a song-by-song recreation of the Dream Attic CD, missing only the semi-novelty tune "Bad Again." The second half of the concert is a scattering of numbers from Thompson's long career, all the way from his first solo album released in 1972, Henry the Human Fly, to 2007s Sweet Warrior.
Here is the song list for this generously long concert:
• "The Money Shuffle"
The band members are Michael Jerome (drums); Taras Prodaniuk (bass); Pete Zorn (guitars, flute, sax, and mandolin); and Joel Zifkin (violin and mandolin).
Before proceeding further, a bit of background on Richard Thompson's decades-long career, which extends even further back than his first solo album: In 1967, at the age of eighteen, he was playing guitar in the original incarnation of the London-based folk-rock band, Fairport Convention, and later recorded several albums with his then-wife Linda, including 1982s Shoot Out the Lights, an album that in 1987 took the twenty-fourth spot on The Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years." His songwriting canon is too diverse to be contained in a short list, but it includes his folk/rock/pop take on English and Scottish traditional tunes, jigs, reels, hornpipes, waltzes, and polkas—to name only a few genres. With forty-some albums to his name, Thompson naturally has to concentrate on a relatively minor sliver of his output. For this concert he chose to stick mainly with his solo work in a folk-rock vein, beginning with his most recent studio release, the aforementioned, Dream Attic.
The Dream Attic CD was a live recording of all new songs by the same band Thompson is playing with on Celtic Connection. By the time of this concert, the band had traveled and played together for about a year, and I fully agree with Thompson when he says, "You can hear the band taking a few more risks, and getting a bit deeper into the groove. This is a very musical band, very tight, and we're very rehearsed but in a way that is both comfortable and challenging. They can take the songs to places I hadn't imagined when I was writing them." Since this is a video, we are treated not only to a visual fly-on-the-wall perspective of his virtuoso nimble pick-and-finger style of playing, but also his easy way with the audience.
Richard Thompson's lyrics are often satirical, world weary, or downright bleak, yet his stage presence is anything but glum. He grins and banters with the audience between songs, and handles mild heckling with aplomb. His relaxed, humorous interactions with his listeners create a refreshing atmosphere of friendliness missing from most concert films.
For example, on the first song in the second half of the set, "The Angels Took My Race Horse Away," Thompson gleefully informs us that the album it is drawn from, "Henry the Human Fly," was the worst selling album in Warner Brothers catalog. After the band finishes that wry and poignant tune, they launch into a devastating and luminous arrangement of a rocker entitled "Can't Win" from his Amnesia album.
"Can't Win" replaces Thompson's usual showcase live number, "Shoot Out the Lights," and clocks in at slightly under 13 minutes. Just when you think the guitar solo—ferociously plucked and strummed on his blue, Strat-style Ferrington Custom Electric—could not get more intense, Thompson and band kick into a higher gear and take it up a level—not once, but several times. A younger, less reserved crowd would be on their feet and cheering, but the majority of this audience appears to be middle-aged and up. Thankfully, this more mature crowd maintains a respectful silence during the numbers—no whistles, shouts, or clapping until the band is finished playing.
The band does not quite hit that wrenching rock-n-roll intensity again, but continues with several superb arrangements: the poignant, jazzy dance tune, "Al Bowlly's in Heaven," in a slightly sped-up tempo with short solo turns by each band member; a gorgeous rendition of the rhythmically infectious "One Door Opens" from The Old Kit Bag; a sprightly rendition of "Wall Of Death" from his final album with Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights, and the mordantly humorous look at a stormy on-and-off again romance, "Tear Stained Letter," with the hilarious intro verse and chorus:
It was three in the morning when she took me apart
Just when I thought I could learn to forget her
Altogether, it's an irresistible bunch of songs that will have you toe-tapping, nodding your head in time, and wondering how on Earth a group of mere humans can play and sing with such angelic perfection.
As for the technical specs, the color on this 1080i Blu-ray transfer is vivid and nicely balanced, and the video, for live concert footage, is more often than not crisp and detailed. The disc includes a clear and dynamic LPCM stereo, and ambient 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. The surround is not particularly discrete, but recreates a decent hall-like simulation of the live performance. For those without DTS playback capability, lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital is also available. The only extra is a sprightly pair of acoustic guitar numbers played solo from the 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival. The Richard Thompson Band: Live at the Celtic Connection (Blu-ray) comes with an eight-page, full-color glossy booklet that includes a few comments from Richard Thompson and a short essay on his career by Mick Houghton.
True fans will, of course, have to purchase this disc—preferably the modestly priced Blu-ray for its high-definition picture and sound, but this would also be a fine introduction to the most criminally ignored musician and songwriter of the twentieth century. I believe most newcomers to his music will be glad they did not pass this one by. In the words of Richard Thompson:
Night comes in like some cool river
Not guilty, except for instilling feelings of inadequacy in guitarists everywhere.
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