Genre tags can often be misleading things. For as long as Richard Thompson has been making music, the term ‘folk rock’ has been following him around – often to the point where he’s cited as a defining artist of the style. However, within even the first 10 minutes of his show at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion this notion is proved woefully inaccurate at best. He’s joined tonight by a taut duo of drums and bass, forming a power trio occasionally augmented by a secondary guitarist. It’s a tight, no-frills sound which lends itself well to bluesy rock ‘n’ roll and it’s that mood which permeates the evening. It’s a sound that is, by turns, both jocular and agitated. Thompson faces the near-capacity audience almost exclusively behind a Fender electric guitar tonight, his trusty acoustic making only a few rare appearances. Opening with a one-two punch of cuts from his latest studio outing, the atmosphere crafted is immediately edgier, meaner and more purely blues-rock than the Fairport Convention material which earned him both his name and folksy reputation. To be fair, that’s little surprise – he did leave the band in 1971, so progression from his early days is both inevitable and needed. Still, that hasn’t stopped his work being labelled under the folk banner even now. While there’s certainly some folk-leaning moments during the show, much of what he plays owes a larger debt to ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or ‘Rock Around The Clock’ than some half-remembered English folk ballad.
Admittedly, there are moments where Thompson’s folk heritage comes to the fore; he dusts off a couple of Fairport classics here and there, but even those are presented in heavier form than originally recorded. The anthemic ‘Meet On The Ledge’ surely counts as something of a must-play at one of his shows, but that wasn’t enough to stop him and his band from re-arranging it into something more muscular and riff-driven than the easy-come-easy-go folk harmonies of the original. Compare that to the mandolin-heavy version of the song which the still-touring Fairport Convention play these days and it’s not hard to see why Thompson’s path diverged with his one-time band. Within the context of the show he gives, however, such a redesign makes perfect sense. The band are not afraid of really letting loose, and each player has the chops to allow for some stellar hard-rock jamming. A good many of the songs tonight feel more like excuses to let rip than anything else; the sung portions are usually gotten over with a couple of minutes in, leaving Thompson ample time to solo in his own inimitable and fluid style – one which has aged just as well as his still excellent voice. The band, too, find plenty of space to improvise. The drummer plays with a slickly professional ease, his fills voiced with an unfussy confidence and articulated with the style of someone that’s spent plenty of time working on their rudiments. The bass player likewise fills up the bottom-end of the soundscape with aplomb, allowing for an overall sound which feels complete and satisfying despite the relatively slim line-up being employed.
The performances themselves are excellent, then, but what of the songs? When the old-favourites are wheeled out, things go swimmingly. There are, too, a good number of newer cuts which work well, and the material from his latest album is particularly impressive. The night’s generous runtime of about an hour and forty minutes does start to drag at certain points, however. The primary issue lies in the fact that much of the set sounds notably alike. Thompson’s three solo-acoustic performances offer a welcome and much-needed break from the driving blues-rock that makes up 75% of tonight’s set, but it’s not nearly enough. At times, it’s hard to avoid a touch of ennui setting in, as so many of the songs performed share a similarly rollicking backbeat or chugging chord progression. Thompson is a great songwriter when he puts his mind to it – masterpieces such as ‘Genesis Hall’ and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ are ample proof of this – but so too has he been known to write more than a few rather generic blues bop-alongs. They’re pieces that are fine in small doses, certainly, but when the majority of the set consists of such moments, things star to blur together a little. However, what can always be relied on is the frenetic, joyous energy of the jam sections. While the sung portions of the set vary from revelatory brilliance to simple sufficiency, Thompson’s solos are – without exception – engaging, vibrant and dynamic. Even during the longest, most ecstatic improvisations, the band never outstay their welcome or drift into self-indulgence, instead remaining firmly within the grasp of the listener whilst still taking them on a snaking, unpredictable journey.
While the electric jamming is undeniably compelling, it’s the 15 minutes or so of acoustic material where the set really shines. ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ is one of Thompson’s most celebrated songs, and for good reason. Thankfully, he performs it without backing – and it’s simply astonishing. His fingerpicking abilities remain as nimble as ever, and his live performance only amplifies the grace and poise so abundant in the song. Another major standout is a solo rendition of ‘Beeswing’ – a superb piece from 1993’s ‘Mirror Blue’. It’s at moments like these that the folk tag makes the most sense. His songwriting, at its best, embodies a true timelessness that allows it to slip into the heritage and history of the folk tradition. As profound as these moments of quieter reflection are, however, the band return to stage for the inevitable hard-rock encore. It’s not so much that the return to distortion and riffs is unwelcome, as that they could simply have been balanced it a little more diplomatically with the contrasting moments of acoustic solitude. Both are affecting in their own ways and, ideally, the night could have been split half and half between the two. Even so, Richard Thompson’s live show is one enthusiastically and ably played by all on stage. It’s generous in its quantity and finds a music legend still very much able to give a top drawer performance. While the set list could have been improved to better showcase the variety of Thompson’s recorded output, it remains largely very enjoyable – and not infrequently exhilarating.