Richard Thompson had just finished playing "Hard On Me" when a man in the audience at Berklee on Saturday shouted "Hey! Can you do that again?" What a silly thing to say -- except not a few concertgoers, including yours truly, would have been perfectly happy to hear those very chord changes, and the dazzling guitar work, and the song's searing poetry one more time. He's that good.
No Richard Thompson review is complete without noting the criminally cultish size of his fan base. A gifted songwriter and bona fide guitar god, Thompson should be required listening for alt-rock upstarts. But at 58, the co founder of seminal British folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention isn't a marketing priority. Despite his continued prolific out put, Thompson's audience, judging from the many grizzled beards and gray ponytails, has been around since the '60s.
The show began with a fistful of songs from the artist's new album, "Sweet Warrior," his first full-band, plugged-in effort in years. The exuberant opener, "Needle and Thread," and a sober meditation, "Take Care the Road You Choose," set the tone for a set that toggled between deep, rich rock tunes and elegant ballads -- all delivered with warmth and dexterity by Thompson's young rhythm section and multi-instrumentalist Peter Zorn. The most striking song was the new track "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," a first-person narrative told by a soldier on patrol in Iraq, where "Dad" is shorthand for Baghdad. "Dad's in a bad mood/ Dad's got the blues/ It's someone else's mess that I didn't choose/ At least we're winning on the Fox evening news/ Nobody loves me here," Thompson sang through gritted teeth, slicing up verse and chorus with sprays of notes that seemed to be attacking from every direction.
His guitar prowess isn't simply a matter of speed and dexterity -- although if you closed your eyes during "Hard On Me" you'd swear there were three guitar players: one hammering out the rhythm, another swooping in with blistering high notes, and yet another plucking burnished tones from the bottom end. When the band briefly left him to his own devices, Thompson offered a solo troubadour master class. Virtually immobile, in signature black beret, he careened through a raw, breathtaking rendition of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and resurrected -- with monumental precision and comparable soul -- his early '70s waltz "Withered and Died."
Nowhere was the timeless ness of his catalog more marked than in his encore set. " Sunset Song," a measured new ballad full of dark portent, might well have been me dieval. "Gypsy Love Songs," a 20-year-old hard rocker, would fit right in on the new White Stripes album. The synchronized sax and guitar on "Tear-Stained Letter" sounded like a battered set of bagpipes, while "Mr. Stupid" -- a faux-jubilant slice of New Wave pop, circa 2007 -- skewered the evergreen battle of the sexes. That's range.