Barbican, London, 26 February 2013
Anyone expecting a pleasant evening of easy listening folk from the back catalogue of one of the founding members of 1960s British folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, was in for a shock.
After the second song I turned to my friend and said I feel like I am watching the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And not just because we were watching a three-piece with a bass player who looked from a distance a little like an older version of Jimi’s bassist Noel Redding.
But because Richard Thompson’s set at the Barbican this week was a virtuoso vision of guitar driven prog rock more akin to the great rock bands of the late 60s and 70s, then anything approaching the folk for which Thompson is more associated.
To underline this point the encore saw the band do a cover of 60s supergroup Cream’s White Room.
The setlist featured heavily tracks from Thompson’s latest album Electric, which also features the live outfit of slick drummer Michael Jerome who would look more at home in a jazz band and the extraordinary bassist Taras Prodaniuk, attired in a suit and looking very 70s.
With Thompson looking almost like a skipper from a whaler with his white beard, beret and black jeans , the trio looked completely uncohesive.
But their playing together was, well, electric. Around Jerome’s barrage of artillery on the drum kit Thompson and Prodaniuk traded incredible fire from their guitars.
They followed each other as tight as can be on the “folk funk” (mostly funk) of opening tracks Stuck on the Treadmill and the thundering Sally B. And went off in worlds of solo exploration on the first old track of the night, For Shame of Doing Wrong, a dark Doorsy blues like number from the 1975 Richard and Linda Thompson album Pour Down Like Silver.
And so the evening went. Prodaniuk must be one of the most impressive bass players I have ever seen. Who is he! His instrument looked like a part of him and the space he found within musical bars was incredible, running up and down the fret board with amazing nimbleness and authority.
During their spars he often had the upper hand, before melting away to let his boss Thompson explode with all manner of licks, chords and sounds. It is no wonder that Thompson has been voted one of the best guitar players ever by Rolling Stone Magazine. His technique and variety seems limitless.
Unfortunately though this was a rather one-dimensional evening, which also suffered from the fact that the Barbican is just not a good place for this type of music.Rock trios don’t play any better than this. They can’t. It’s impossible. Although it has to be said White Room sounded flat and made the band sound inferior to Cream, an impression soon put to rest when they did their own Stony Ground. Why is it that even the greatest bands just can’t do other people’s songs as well as the originals?
The band performed at Shepherds Bush Empire the night before which would have been far more suitable.
The audience also seemed somewhat bemused by this onslaught of guitar. Although there was some gentle bobbing about during another oldie Wall of Death and everyone sang along to the set closer of 1983’s Tear Stained Letter.
The inclusion of murder ballad Sidney Wells and sea shanty Little Sally Rackett might have gone someway to providing a hint of folk, but even these were performed at break neck speed with guitar solos piercing the skin.
In fact everything this evening was about as far away from folk or even folk rock as can be.
Now I am not even close to being a traditionalist, and this was an astonishingly talented and impressive and spirited performance which was at times hugely enjoyable. But a few smatterings from Thompson’s more folkier side would have given the evening a much more varied and welcome mix.
This was made clear when someone shouted out “Beeswing” at the start of the second encore. Thompson hesitated, musing no doubt, how he could do this with the band. He then asked the other musicians to wait, picked up an acoustic guitar and played, as if he’d been practising it all day, an off the cuff rendition of one of his most beautiful songs.
Beeswing is a truly wonderful song, somewhere in the folk spectrum between John Martyn and Nic Jones, about a free-spirited woman and her lover moving about England. Its elegiac like melody is underlined by some wonderful guitar parts and it was one of the highlights of the evening.
Thompson can sing no doubt and by god he can play electric guitar. But his folky down to earth English voice does tend to suit the more folky numbers more which are also beautifully played. More of those would have made a good night into a great one.