Saturday, June 23, 2007

Free Sounds: Richard Thompson in Prospect Park

The Times just did a piece on so-called "freegans", who furnish their apartments from sidewalk trash and dumpsters (er... like the rest of us... at least sometimes...) and eat discarded food from supermarkets (crows and vultures wouldn't object, but parrots are more picky). I was once told by people on the island of Grenada: "In America, people have more wealth, but they can still be hungry. We are poor, but never hungry. If we don't have food we go up into the hills and come back with food. You cannot do that in America." But it appears that even in the Urban Jungle it is possible. Think I'll go make myself some Dumpster Salad right now.

Whether or not that sounds appetizing, one thing New York never runs out of is free music, or music at such low cost it is free by today's inflated standards. Classical institutions complain that they cannot sell out concerts; but when even a decent 2nd balcony seat runs you $65 or so, and there is hardly a day without a free event worth attending, they have only themselves to blame. For example, in the wake of 9/11 NYC initiated a "River to River" festival, including numerous free outdoor and indoor concerts. Last year we heard Son Volt give a buttkicking performance right by the water. Parrot has still not gotten over the fact that he missed a free concert by Sonny Rollins at Damrosch Park last year, and possibly worse, one by U2 right here in Brooklyn. There is a ton of free stuff at churches, in parks and elsewhere. One of the best concerts I've ever seen was a free show by the Beach Boys in Central Park - must have been around 1976. One of the worst concerts I've ever seen was a free show by Jefferson Starship in Central Park - around the same time. Even before there were as many free concert series' as there are now, there was the Schaeffer Music Festival, where you could see Led Zeppelin (I didn't), King Crimson (I did), and many equally incredible bands for about $3 a pop.

Three bucks is what I paid last night to see Richard Thompson - it still counts as free because it was a "voluntary" contribution. Walking into the concert area Thursday evening I was immediately struck by three things, all related: a dense fog of cigarette smoke, an almost as pervasive atmosphere of beer-induced flatulence, and the largest crowd of died-in-the-wool baby boomers I've ever seen.
It was a veritable sea of dressed-down late-fatherhood and former hippie-motherhood types, some toting tots, others who left their spouses home to spend quality time with their children, gently explaining to them that they probably wouldn't like this concert much anyway, it's kind of folk-rock and you're still into Aerosmith, etc.
It was like everyone there was between 35 and 55, looked it, dressed it, and damn well meant to let their vices hang out whether there happened to be second-generation types around or not. I had this feeling of being at home and being distinctly uncomfortable with that, but realizing that everyone else there probably felt the same way.

Why were the Beatle-boomers flocking to this? If you are anywhere near the age of the Blogging Parrot you were probably somewhere around a college campus when Fairport Convention was making a name for itself, holding its own against Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead and those other university icons. Indeed you were probably vaguely aware of a British Isles Folkie-Acoustic subculture that included groups like Pentangle, Fairport, Steeleye Span , Fotheringay and the Incredible String Band, and which surely influenced numerous "progressive" rock groups including Yes, Renaissance, Jethro Tull, Genesis and even Led Zeppelin. Bert Jansch, one of the Pentangle guitar wizards (the other being the great John Renbourn) was heard over the din of parrot squawcks in Brooklyn's Southpaw club last year, and played a piece that was certainly the predecessor to Jimmy Page's "Black Mountain Side". Richard Thompson was his counterpart in Fairport. He later went off as a duo with wife Linda, and Boomer knew about this phase of his career too; "Richard and Linda Thompson" probably rings a bell even for people who never heard a single song by them. Richard then continued sans Linda. Through all this you undoubtedly heard at some point about his reputation as a fine songwriter. You've heard a few of his songs now and then, but nothing since Fairport Convention ever moved you to go out and buy an album. Or you did, but you haven't listened to it in 20 years, minimum. But if you are true boomer you have probably at some point said to yourself, "I should probably check out Richard (and Linda? is he still with Linda?) Thompson before I get so old I lose my hearing." (Which should have happened at the last Mahavishnu concert you attended, but somehow it only left you with tinnitus for a week.) And all of a sudden here he is playing a free concert in Prospect Park, and you say to yourself, "I'll never forgive myself if I don't check this out". And since you hate to never forgive yourself, you check it out. That's why there seemed to be a quarter million flatulent children of the sixties, washing down their soy products with Sam Adams, at the Richard Thompson show on Thursday night.

Now to add a bit to the atmosphere, there was, shall we say, plenty of weather, almost all of it wet. It started raining as Thompson took the stage; it continued to rain; there was a cloudburst and many people fled; there were storm clouds that looked like ethereal black lions roaring down from heaven to consume a meal, periodically illuminated by red lightning. Thompson took a break, while we were drenched. It rained on and off through the whole show. And it's still two years before the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. But when all was said and done, and every metal chair had a puddle of water where a boomer butt had been, and the hill where families spread their picnic blankets was well washed of beer spills, Richard Thompson still played to a packed arena, and now it was not only appropriate but necessary to shout, dance, whoop, whistle and generally show that the world that no flash thunderstorm was going to deprive us of our Richard Thompson experience.

We were not disappointed: this was one of the best concerts I've ever seen. And among concerts that surpassed my expectations, it ranked even higher. No big surprise that Yes or Led Zep gave an incredible performance. But sometimes you go expecting nothing in particular, and leave with your jaw dropped and this feeling that you were just transported back to a time and place you thought you'd never be again, and a little guy inside you going, "That's it, I'm really going to start getting serious about playing the guitar again..." The closest comparable experience that comes to mind was - ouch, 13 years ago? - at a Woodstock 25th anniversary concert, the one right here in Brooklyn, at another longstanding free concert series near Coney Island. Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald and Melanie performed; but what blew me away was Canned Heat. Hot they were (he said in his best Yodaese), so much so that I could actually imagine this as a kind of spiritual return to Woodstock.

Thompson's show was of this order. To begin with, I can honestly say this: if you have the slightest inclination to feel that you know how to handle an electric guitar, please go see this man play and be disabused of such ideas. I think it was halfway through the show before I heard him repeat a single move. He does not so much play the strings as manipulate them. It is almost as if he discovered properties of a stratocaster that no one else is aware of, and he uses these properties to produce solos that defy all conventions except those of taste. Comparisons with Hendrix are begging to be made, but I'll stop while I still have some credibility. (Thompson did, however, place 19th on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Hendrix - duh - was first. The list is a bit of a joke, but I'll skip the diatribe on some of the ridiculous rankings, see for yourself.) Suffice it to say that without ever using technique for mere heroic ends alone,
he manages to be all over the fingerboard (and beyond), massaging and coaxing the strings into slithering lines that seep out like the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. (Parrots don't drink coffee but they can follow a warm scent nonetheless.) I will admit that once or twice his breaks went on a bit too long for their own good. It's also possible that on replay some of the guitar work would seem more standard than I've described it. But that doesn't change the fact that in the immediacy of the live performance context what came across was an endlessly inventive instrumentalist with an original style.

I should add that while he did not do very many acoustic numbers, the one or two that he did suggested that he would be as capable of keeping his audience on the edge of their seats in an all acoustic concert as he was with the strat. His one lengthy fingerstyle attack was like a guitar-picking master class.

As for the songwriting, it did not ake long to see where he's coming from. There is an Irish lilt to almost everything, but rhythmically he does such amazing things with this underlying material that it is all but cloaked. The words kept grabbing me like the guitar work - somewhat unexpected but almost always satisfying and provocative. He played several songs from his recent album Sweet Warrior, opening with the album opener "Needle and Thread"' we also got at least "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" (some controversy about this one) and "Bad Monkey". This CD is sure to find its way to my stacks soon. SInce I don't know much of his older material by name I can't tell you how much of it he played, but with rain breaks and all he was on for almost 90 minutes.

It would be criminal not to mention one of the most brilliant things about his concert" Thompson's band. Pete Zorn sort of defines the term "multi-instrumentalist", playing not only backup but extended solos on most of his instruments. These included at least mandolin, guitar, baritone sax and a couple of other horns (alto and soprano, perhaps). In additon he contributed the high harmonies, which rang out clear and accurate in spite of his years. I believe the drummer was Earl Harvin, though if so he cut his hair. (Thompson's introduction of the band members came at the very end, and was none too clear, unfortunately.) In any case, he had enough stage presence to play the concert on his own, technique to burn, and an uncanny ability to complement Thompson's unique style. I assume the bassist was Rory McFarlane (I don't know what any of these guys look like, and the web sites have limited information); again, whoever it was, he provided more than a solid foundation, posting a clean and flowing bass line that alllowed the songs and the breaks the freedom to move around as they wished.

As if to offer a grand finale as unusual as the rest of his work, Thompson broke a string near the end of his set, and someone waltzed out in the middle of his solo with a new instrument, placed it around his neck and remove the other, as he blithely carried on hardly missing a beat. During an encore I assume it was his son who was introduced as Timmy Thompson. THe younger folkrocker accompanied Richard on guiatar and vocals.

P.S. - I hope to upload some photos shortly; meanwhile, for a gorgeous photo of the concert please see the brief review at Majikthise.