Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, Royal Festival Hall | New music reviews, news & interviews
Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, Royal Festival Hall
Meltdown curator with Loudon Wainwright III in a double bill to relish
It takes quite something to be able to hold the attention of a packed Royal Festival Hall with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a bunch of songs. Two men who have that something are Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, a pair of folky old goats who have been mates for 30-odd years, and here, performing as part of Thompson’s Southbank Meltdown season, they kept me - and I suspect many others - enthralled with their songcraft, their voices, their bone-dry humour, and in Thompson’s case with his astonishing virtuoso guitar-picking – when he plays, it’s hard to believe that there’s only one of him doing it. This was a double bill to relish.
They each performed their own sets, with Wainwright playing first, but they also spent some time on stage together, with Wainwright’s harmonising voice at times sounding weirdly like that of Thompson’s old singing partner (and former wife) Linda Thompson. Time being of the essence, both men focused on old favourites from their repertoires: there was a smattering of material from their respective new albums (Wainwright’s Songs for the New Depression, released earlier this year; and Thompson’s Dream Attic, out in August), but mostly they mined their rich seams of older songs.
The evening highlighted the differences between their approaches to the folky-acoustic-singer-songwriter thing. Wainwright is funnier, sharper, and at times excruciatingly honest about his foibles and his failings and his weaknesses and his mistakes and his shortcomings (which in turn have been scrutinised by his daughter Martha in her song “Bloody Motherfuckingasshole”); Thompson (pictured right), though candid, is darker and more mysterious, a raconteur of strange tales and bleak episodes: he takes the tradition of the story-song and gives it an almost mythic quality.
But what also struck me about both men was their ability to mood-swing in an instant: in Wainwright’s songs, a chuckle often turned swiftly into a lump in the throat, as in his marvellously funny and exquisitely sad “Another Song in C” (performed at the piano). Thompson, meanwhile - looking fresh following his afternoon performance of 1,000 Years of Popular Music - moved effortlessly between wry quippery and bleak songs about serial killers, drifters, and those old flames that still glow and flicker in the heart (“Cold Kisses”).
And of course there was the aforementioned presence of both men, the sheer power of personality and the accumulated weight of experience that made them both such compelling figures: Wainwright gurning, waggling his tongue and periodically kicking his leg, all of which gave him a somewhat mad and compulsive air; the bearded Thompson standing, legs apart, eyes mostly closed, swaying slightly, and wrestling ever so gently with the body and neck of his guitar: contained, restrained, English.
Of the songs, I’d choose as my highlights from Wainwright his “Dead Man”, about going through his deceased father’s closet and trying on the clothes (whew!) and the aforementioned “Another Song in C” (from self-congratulation to self-flagellation); and from Thompson, the spine-tingling “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (I get a thrill every time I hear him sing “I’ll give you my Vincent to riiiiiide”), his unutterably bleak “Uninhabited Man” (“Who’s been sleeping in my bed?”), plus a rare outing for his peerless “Beeswing”, a short story in song. Oh, and did I mention Thompson’s guitar-playing? Yes, but I’ll say it again anyway: there is no one else like him; I don’t know how he manages to play simultaneously what sound like four separate parts. It’s astonishing.
At the end they were on stage together, easing off of the dark stuff and breezing along with Leiber and Stoller’s jaunty “Smoky Joe’s Cafe”, Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Then: smiles, thanks, and they were off, backslapping.
Richard Thompson performs '1952 Vincent Black Lightning'
Photo above by Kevin Smith
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