BEVERLY — It’s always baffled me how superstardom has eluded Richard Thompson. Since 1967, the British guitar god/superb singer-songwriter/engaging entertainer, has created some of the most memorable music of our time.
And, at age 70, he’s still at the top of his game, as his most recent album, “13 Rivers” demonstrates.
Friday night at The Cabot, Thompson was at his best. Except for the encore, when longtime musical mate Dave Mattacks, a Marblehead resident, joined him on drums, it was just Thompson, armed with an acoustic guitar and those amazing descriptive story songs that have tugged at the hearts and tickled the funny bones of his devoted fans for years.
Last fall, Thompson performed an electric set with drums and bass at the Paradise in Boston. It was sensational. But this show was better. The lyrics were front and center, his droll, self-deprecating repartee was priceless, and his guitar work was just as spectacular as when he plugs in. Thompson’s guitar style is distinctive; he plays bass notes and rhythm with a pick, and adds melody by plucking the treble strings with his fingers. He also uses unusual tunings.
Thompson has never had a hit, as he wryly pointed out Friday night during an intro to quasi-hit “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” “You don’t come to my shows to hear a bunch of hits … because there aren’t any.” He also poked fun at his fans: “My demographic is people aged 80 to 90, the only people who still buy CDs. So, people my age, please don’t die.”
Thompson played nearly every song his fans long to hear: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (a tale about a bad boy, a redheaded girl and a motorcycle), the heartbreaking “From Galway to Graceland” (a delusional woman leaves her mundane life in Ireland to be with her “boyfriend,” Elvis, in Tennessee), the narrative ballad “Beeswing” (a man yearns for the wildness he experienced with a free-spirited girl years earlier).
The rocking “Wall of Death” from the acclaimed “Shoot Out the Lights” album with ex-wife Linda, the lovely “Persuasion,” the disturbing “Cold Kisses,” and the beautiful ballad “Dimming of the Day” are equally brilliant songs; all earned long, extended ovations. The new “A Love You Can’t Survive” was a powerhouse that rivals his past triumphs.
Thompson seemed to enjoy himself immensely, never more so than during “Tear Stained Letter,” which required audience participation to humorous effect.
Marblehead’s Mattacks provided subtle percussion during the haunting “Ghost in the Wind” and bashing rockabilly accompaniment to “Drinking Wine Spo-dee-o-dee,” the 1930s song popularized by Jerry Lee Lewis that closed the night.
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” an oft-covered ballad written by his Fairport Convention bandmate Sandy Denny 50 years ago, was a highlight. He encouraged attendees to check out Denny’s version: “If I’ve swayed one person to listen to her superior version, I’ve done my job tonight.”
Likewise, I hope this review prompts readers to check out the aforementioned songs.
I can see why people are willing to spend obscene amounts of money to see the Stones or The Who in huge, impersonal venues. But for short money, they can be turned on by an equally legendary, if less-well-known, musician in an intimate space like the Cabot.
Richard Thompson performs frequently in Massachusetts. See him! No one’s better.