Review: Richard Thompson – The Empire, Belfast

It’s be a while since I’ve seen the Belfast Empire as full as it is tonight – we’re talking packed to the rafters with barely room to breathe never mind move. The draw of seeing Richard Thompson play Belfast is obviously appealing for a lot of people. One of the co-founders of seminal English folk group Fairport Convention back in the 1960’s, for the past 30-odd years he has been forging his own solo path as well as collaborating with some of the biggest names in music. His skills on the guitar are legendary, as is his song-writing and the vibrancy of his live performances.

Opening for Thompson this evening is up-and-coming Irish singer/songwriter David Keenan who I think bears an uncanny resemblance to Cillian Murphy sporting Clarke Gable’s moustache, and he arrives on stage clutching a guitar that seems to be held together with sheets of paper and duct tape. Initially, Keenan’s sound reminded me a little of Declan O’Rourke and, like O’Rourke, he seems to specialise in complex and at times poetic lyrics.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

The songs are interesting; “The Sacred Cough Bottle” and “Lawrence of Arcadia” stand out, but I felt that that there was a bit too much shouting and banging on the guitar and that this detracted a little from the performance. When Keenan reined this in, as on his last song “A Corner Boy’s Lament”, the effect was much more pleasing and easy on the ear. This was a well-crafted song about the light and dark that resides inside each of us and had the feel of something quite personal about it.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

Thompson takes to the stage sporting his trademark black beret and sleeveless denim jacket and immediately apologises to the audience for “making all us old people stand up”. He launches into a folk/country rock number that seems to go down well, before showcasing the first of several songs from his forthcoming album 13 Rivers.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

Her Love Was Meant for Me” was a big, heavy number with Thompson commenting that once he had played some of the new stuff that “we’ll play all the old shit after this.” Thompson builds rapport with the crowd early and easily with stories and jokes flowing constantly between the songs. His guitar playing is breath-taking at times, whether he is playing hooks and licks or blasting out massive solos.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

I was mentally noting the genres of music covered by Thompson this evening and quickly realised it would be easier to spot the ones that he didn’t dabble in. There was folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz, prog-rock, country and country rock, rockabilly, surf – the list might well be endless. Best of all, he does all of them wonderfully well. The band, as a unit, are hard and heavy when they need to be but also capable of being soft and gentle when required. Taras Prodaniuk on bass is rock solid and provides backing vocals when needed; Michael Jerome on drums is simply immense.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

“Take Care of the Road You Choose” is a laid-back and gentle tune, and Thompson’s blues-style guitar lends a real warmth to the song. Thompson uses last year’s 50th Anniversary of Fairport Convention to play some of his material from that era and this is very well-received.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

You Can’t Win” is performed as a mid-tempo rock and roll track with steady drums and bass providing the backing, and a huge screeching solo from Thompson. He bends and slides the notes and this seems to go on forever. A minor technical malfunction with the bass guitar offers Thompson the chance to ad-lib with the crowd and run through what seems to be a fairly large collection of dad jokes; the two nuns and the blind man being the highlight of these.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

“They Tore The Hippodrome Down” (from the Acoustic Rarities album) has a slow swing jazz feel to it and “Dry My Tears and Move On” is slower but gets the crowd’s hands up and clapping in the air. The band leave the stage, with Thompson wryly noting “it’s not a strike” and this is his opportunity to take the acoustic guitar and play an amazing version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” – Thompson’s finger-style guitar is blisteringly fast and technically brilliant as he blasts through this tale of a three-way love affair between a guy, his girl and a motorcycle.

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When the band return we get the choppy and discordant “The Rattle Within” and he follows this with “Guitar Heroes”. This is a relatively light-hearted look at growing up and wanting to play like your heroes and Thompson name checks Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Django and Hank Marvin before playing lead breaks in the style of each. It has to be said that Thompson’s mimicry of these artists was pretty much perfect. “Wall of Death” was a anthemic, upbeat, and feel-good tune with a catchy chorus which allowed the crowd to sing along. “Put It There Pal” has hints of Thompson’s folk roots overlaid with some Pink Floyd-style prog rock.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

When Thompson returns for the encore (and a we got a lengthy encore tonight) he was alone, and I immediately recognised the intro to my own favourite Thompson song, “Beeswing”. This was beautifully played and after hearing many versions of this particular tune, it was a genuine privilege to hear Thompson play it live. He follows this with another acoustic number “Down Where The Drunkards Roll” and again, his playing is sublime. The band return for a couple of numbers, one, a nice piece of psychedelic folk-rock and the other a driving blues number that reminded me of The Blasters.

RT - Empire Belfast 2018

This was the first time I’d seen Thompson play live and he was incredible. A truly original talent on guitar, a peerless song-writer and a rather charming and witty stage presence, all blend together to produce a thoroughly enjoyable live performance. The new material sits well beside the older songs and Thompson remains a dynamic musician who is (if my maths is correct) just about to release his 20th solo album on the 14th of September.

Catch him on this tour if you can – I’ll be first in the queue when he returns to Belfast.