Richard Thompson solo acoustic at the Warwick Folk Festival, 24 July 2014

It was a last minute decision. “Hey, Richard Thompson is on at the Warwick Folk Festival tomorrow. I wonder if there are any tickets left?” There were; and we were fortunate to end up about 6 rows from the stage in the large marquee which houses the main stage, on a balmy English summer evening – rather to RT’s surprise, it seems. “I’ve got a reputation for bringing disaster to festivals”, he told us, “in the form of rain and mud”. It was not to be; and the event yesterday was, as summer music festivals go, distinctly genteel, complete with chandelier in the wine tent.

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The audience too was exceedingly well behaved; if anything a bit too subdued but nevertheless enjoying every minute of what turned out to be an outstanding concert.

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A few quick reflections. RT was on excellent form; of course the guitar work is the big attraction but he also has a powerful voice which he uses to great effect in his various tales of woe.

It was great to seem him play from a relatively close position, but frankly I have no idea how he gets the sound he does, and the variety of sounds; you see him moving his fingers and it looks like nothing extraordinary but the music he produces really is.

In Vincent Black Lightning, for example, you hear a tune, a bass accompaniment, little frills and decorations and runs, and it sounds like three guitars; and even while doing that he delivers an intense vocal performance, to get just the right throaty growl and on the “he did Riiiiiide” refrain.

I was also struck by how much feeling he puts into songs that he has performed countless times. Of course that is what performers do; but we have all experienced events where old favourites are delivered in a throwaway manner; I never got that feeling yesterday.

There was plenty of between-song banter and RT took numerous requests, even complaining, “please shout your request in before I start the next song”, when someone succeeded in changing his mind about what to play.

It was great to hear some older songs, including Bright Lights and Genesis Hall. “I used to be in a band,” said RT, telling us that he left due to “musical differences,” and observing that Fairport Convention had got on fine without him.

I enjoyed every song; but one or two stood our for me. Johnny’s Far Away is a rollicking “sea shanty” in the which the crowd joins in the chorus. Its subject is infidelity and RT says “it’s about what musicians get up to on the road.” Johnny is in a band which plays on a cruise where he has a fling with a “wealthy widow” or two; at home his wife Tracey “laying in the booze” consoles herself with “another man, a smoothie”. It is all very seamy, complete with Johnny returning home with “sores and all” as Tracey’s lover sneaks out the back, but is there a trace of sympathy as Tracey declares, “I can’t express myself with my old man,” and Johnny, “I can’t express myself with my old lady?” Or were they just trying to justify themselves to their temporary partners? It seems RT is reflecting on what he has observed in a lifetime on the road, but with some ambiguity, accentuated by the contrast between the sordid subject and the good-timey singalong chorus.

Humour, reflection, sharp observation, tinged with sadness, delivered with virtuoso performance: it makes for an intense experience and the evening flew by.

Beeswing was fantastic, wistful and beautiful.

The most sombre moment came towards the end when RT performed three “songs”, if that is the right word, with words taken from First World War diaries. The opening words: “I’ve never seen a dead body before I went to war and the trenches.”

These words are chanted more than sung, with sparse accompaniment, and the performance was potent but bleak. Nothing new for RT you might think; except that these are unsugared by the humour or melody which lightens other songs.

This is preparatory work for a performance at a centenary commemoration of the 1914-18 war which is set for sometime in 2016, we were told.

The purpose of such events is that we do not forget the horrors of the past nor, we vainly hope, repeat them; and I applaud RT for including this in the concert.

After that we moved to Wall of Death, whose title made a natural link with what had gone before, but which returned us to RT’s normal territory, juxtaposing merriment (a funfair) with gloom (death); but of course it is only a fun ride isn’t it?

A short encore of Keep Your Distance and that was it. Thank you RT for another fine concert.

The set list:

Bathsheba
Saving the good stuff for you
Valerie
The Ghost of you Walks
Johhny’s Far Away
The story of Hamlet
Vincent Black Lightning
Dry My Tears
I want to see the Bright Lights Tonight
Genesis Hall
Fergus Lang
Persuasion
Beeswing
I Misunderstood
Feel so Good
Read about Love
The Trenches
Wall of Death
Keep your distance (Encore)

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