Richard Thompson live at the Barns at Wolf Trap: 75 and still going strong

Thompson never disappoints.

There aren’t too many performers who can introduce a song by saying “Here’s something I wrote 55 years ago.”  Then again, there aren’t too many performers like Richard Thompson. Thompson, who turned 75 last week, took the stage at the intimate Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia on Thursday night in support of his 19th solo album, the soon-to-be-released Ship to Shore looking positively dapper.

In his dark suit and signature beret, the veteran of Fairport Convention did what he has been doing for more than fifty years. He played his acoustic guitar and if you closed your eyes, you would have sworn there were three different musicians pounding out chords and runs and accents on three different guitars. Thompson has been among the greatest acoustic players in the world for those fifty-plus years, and during his uninterrupted 95-minute set on Thursday, he showed no sign of slowing down.

His voice remains as strong as ever as well, as he runs through his set of ballads, rockers, and love songs both poignant and acerbic. He opened Thursday’s show with a couple of old songs – “When the Spell is Broken,” from 1985’s Across a Crowded Room, and then the aforementioned 55-year-old tune, “Poor Ditching Boy,” from his solo debut Henry the Human Fly, released in 1972, just after he had left Fairport Convention.

Richard Thompson defies age at the Barns at Wolf Trap

But he promised hits and he soon delivered with a quintet of fan favorites. The centerpiece, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a love song about a boy, a girl, and a motorcycle, shows off his indelible finger-picking. For my money, “Valerie,” which came a couple of songs earlier, is the high point of any show. Thompson takes the three-minute rocker and turns it into a six-minute jam-band standout, just him and his guitar. He balanced those fast-paced numbers with the beautiful “Beeswing” and the haunting “The Ghost of You Walks,” before ending the run of favorites with his memories of childhood in “Walking the Long Miles Home.”

Thompson’s intro to that last song reveals a young man who lived and breathed music as a teen. The title refers to how he would have to walk the ten miles home if he stayed for the second set at London’s Marquee Club back in 1965. But he could not resist sticking around for acts like The Who, The Yardbirds, The Spencer Davis Group, and The Bill Evans Trio, all of whom he saw in a single month at the Marquee.

Thompson continued to play old songs like “I Feel So Good,” and “Pharaoh,” which he introduced by quoting Ozymandias, before bringing out his wife Zara Philips in the second half of the show to sing harmony on songs from his newest album. Those songs, “Singapore Sadie,” “The Day That I Give In,” and “The Old Pack Mule,” demonstrate that Thompson, at 75, continues to write sharp, poignant, and witty songs.

Philips was a muted presence on stage, and when she joined him on songs he had initially recorded with his first wife Linda Thompson – songs like “Hokey Pokey” and “Wall of Death,” it’s hard not to miss Linda’s powerful voice, which always served as the perfect accompaniment to Thompson more gravelly baritone.

But that’s in the past. Thompson seems to be enjoying recalling the old days and the old songs, even if he can’t always recall the lyrics. He flubbed the opening verse of “I Misunderstood,” and skipped a bit of “Sunset Song,” which he admitted he hadn’t played in quite some time. By the time he played his final encore – a fan-requested “I Want to See Bright Lights Tonight” – none of those minor hiccups seemed to matter.

Richard Thompson is among the best singer-songwriters of the past fifty years and remains one of the best guitar players you will ever hear. He’s still going as strong as ever. Early on in Thursday’s show, he said “I’ve played the big shed before,” (referring to Wolf Trap’s open-air Filene Center) “but I don’t know if I’ve been in here.” (referring to the 382-seat Barns space.) Members of the audience immediately corrected him, some ticking off the previous shows they had seen him play in the Barns. Richard Thompson’s fans apparently are still going strong as well.

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