Richard Thompson’s support act, the likeable Texan country singer Robert Ellis, had come armed with the kind of Thompsonian lines that make an audience wince with their whiplash of cruelty. “Oh Betty Draper,” he sang, “I wish my wife was less like you.” Or, later: “There’s nothing I hate more in this world/than lyin’, deceivin’, cheatin’ little girls.” He felt compelled to add: “Not all my songs are first-person narratives.”
Nor are Thompson’s, unless you believe that he is permanently worked up into Pinteresque rage. Many of his best songs take an ordinary vernacular phrase – “the nerve of some people”, “easy there, steady now”, “that’s the way” – and twist it through repetition into unfamiliarity. They tend to come packaged as either timeless rural tragedies or electrifying guitar meditations. This concert, with Thompson fronting a trio of Michael Jerome on drums and Taras Prodaniuk on bass, was more Hendrix than Hardy. The full Richard Thompson experience reached its apogee on “Can’t Win”. While Prodaniuk kept the beat steady and powerful and Thompson played sheets of guitar so high up the frets his hands were knocking together, Jerome took extended jazzy excursions, now crouching up to thunder all over his waist-level kit, now dropping into a minimal tap on the chorus rather than hammering the beat home.
Thompson sometimes treats his albums not as products in their own right but as platforms from which new songs can audition for a place in his continually evolving live setlist. This time round, several from his new album Electric made probationary appearances: the guttural guitar crunch of “Stuck on the Treadmill”, “Sally B” with its spiky folk melody over a thump of bass, the 1960s social realism of “Salford Sunday”. The couple that might have longevity were “My Enemy”, Thompson’s smouldering playing contained within Jerome’s brushed cymbals, and “If Love Whispers Your Name”, over a walking bassline with Jerome tapping a beat every other bar.
As the encores started, Thompson lightly mocked his set-up: “A battery-powered trio; a nine-volt trio … It’s a pity we can’t play some of the power trio classics from the Sixties, like … ” – and then launched into a perfect simulacrum of Cream’s “White Room” (back from when the still-teenaged Thompson had only one album to his name). At the end, Prodaniuk proposed the opening riff of “Badge”, but was laughed away.
There were still cards up Thompson’s sleeve: a punky surf-rock “Sally Racket”, the megalithic folk-rock plod of the new “Stony Ground”, the step-dance caper of “Tear-Stained Letter” and, best of all, the honouring of a shouted request for “Beeswing”, a tender picaresque about a tramp and his excessively free-spirited sometime lover that let the spirit of Thomas Hardy elbow its way in after all.