by Geno Thackara
Put a guitar in Richard Thompson’s hands and wonderful things happen. He can keep it simple and let the song tell the story, he could embellish it with a solo incorporating anything from English folk to old-school jazz, or he might just decide to flatten the entire crowd with high-voltage rock and roll for ten blistering minutes. Whatever’s on the setlist, you can count on a dizzying range of genres and moods over the course of the night. You can also rest assured that he and his bandmates aren’t the kind to ever just phone it in. Things certainly didn’t even come close to it on Thursday when the Keswick Theater’s almost-packed house was bowled over by his Electric Trio. (I don’t know if that’s supposed to be an official band name to capitalize like that, but dammit, it’s the least they deserve.)
We were set up beautifully by Joan Osborne, playing on this tour as a duo with the excellent Keith Cotton – a format that’s perfect for her specialty of reinventing her songs and anyone else’s. It made for some sultry blues, a minor Latin samba and more than a bit of soulful Americana, touching on covers from John Prine to Ike Turner, Slim Harpo or the Grateful Dead. It was a great surprise for those of us (myself included, I’ll confess) who unfortunately haven’t registered her name much since “One of Us” was all over the airwaves. I honestly wasn’t expecting to hear that song at all since her opening set was miles away from 90s alt-rock territory, but it made another nice surprise at the close. Cotton’s piano slowed it down to a rich ballad that gave the tune a whole new shading.
Osborne also hinted at a possible surprise after intermission, which turned out to be a lovely opening duet with Thompson on Betty Everett’s “Let It Be Me.” Sweet as the show had been up to that point, it was only an appetizer compared to the wild hour and a half still to come. He remains the classic troubadour, making us laugh and cry with a good witty joke and the timeless simplicity of a beautiful non-love song. And this is at an age when nobody would blame him for drifting off to the countryside to take up beekeeping.
“Enough of that new rubbish. Let’s get back to the 70s where we belong,” Thompson remarked to a half-serious round of laughter at one point. His MO of switching up set lists means that you never know which of your classic favorites to hope for; this time our treats included “Wall of Death,” “Tear-Stained Letter” and “For Shame of Doing Wrong.” Color me satisfied. Nonetheless, there was also room for almost half of his newest album Still in among the familiar crowd-pleasers. Somehow they all fit together well enough, and were played energetically enough, that a casual listener wouldn’t have guessed which pieces were 30-40 years old. You could swear it was all fresh. (Well, mostly. A title like “Tear-Stained Letter” probably sounds rather quaint today, but c’mon. There’s no such thing as a tear-stained email. That just doesn’t have any ring to it at all.)
It also doesn’t hurt that this trio is a well-oiled machine with the kind of intuition that comes from over a decade of playing together; Taras Prodaniuk is more manic than the bass player’s rulebook really allows, while Michael Jerome’s powerhouse drumming managed heavy solid groove with wild-man flair all at once. By the time they cranked out Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” to bring the house down for a second encore, the cheering was almost as deafening as the music.
You might not have to take my word for it – the show was being filmed, so there may be a DVD coming if we’re lucky. For now we’ve got a killer new album to enjoy and hopefully have more visits to look forward to down the line. So far he still isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.