Richard Thompson is one of the best acoustic guitar players in the world, in my opinion.
I know it’s a bit hard to tag someone as ‘one of the best’, especially in music, many players are good and has their own style, but it is my blog after all, and I’ll tag if I want to.
Thompson, aside from his killer acoustic style, is even a crueler killer when it comes to an electric guitar. He can produce a true fuzzy sound in the same method they did it in the past – Push it to the limit.
On the other hand, he’s one of those who can play entire Bach pieces, medieval, Leadbelly‘s blues and Bert Jansch‘s phrases. He might not able to play behind his back and his tongue might not be long as Gene Simmons and he can’t flex like Richard Simmons, but other than all that – he’s a guitar god.
Small Town Romance was recorded in three nights, in a tiny club in NYC, 1982. The repertoire of songs (in the original release) was 14 songs that reflects Thompson’s work between 1967-1982. Beautiful moments of Fairport Convention, alongside other songs that were recorded with his then wife Linda, next to unreleased songs and rarities.
It’s interesting to hear how some of the songs we used to recognize immediately by the haunting voice of Linda (like Down Where The Drunkers Roll or The Great Valerio), now being delivered by the deep warm voice of Richard. There are a lot of Thompson’s bootlegs in the web, and listening to the shows from, say, 10 years ago till today, reveals a different Thompson in this live album.
Today, he’s much more experienced and confident with his vocals, which is something I’m not sure he was back in 1982, especially when everything he did so far were bands shows of all sorts, it must be harsh to record your first live album, all acoustic, and after ugly divorce.
Today, he’s an entertainer, a professional who can hold his audience’s attention for two hours and more, and go with his fans through a journey of all emotions in the book.The album’s greatest highlights for me are the weak ones. In the rough, unpolished moments, it’s Richard at its most sincere and honest mode. He’s not a guitar god, he’s human and we, as humans too, look up for something to identify with.
This album documents a time in life that happened pretty close to his separation from Linda. Their marriage story was painful, according to the stories at least (seek for the Mojo edition who covers the whole story). They released couple of albums, lived commune life, got closer to religion and became Sufis (and even dedicated the front cover of their 1976 Pour Down Like Silver to their current look and way of life).
This marriage lasted for couple of years, as problems started to occur constantly. Simon Nicole, a previous Fairport member, was the guitarist in the duo’s shows and often had to stand between the two to use as a buffer zone, while Linda tried to kick or push Richard. The marriage ended with a pregnancy and a brilliant last album in this format – Shoot Out The Light, and a big big heartbreak.
So when Thompson is required to sit in front of an audience and sing the songs Linda used to sing with him live, all these songs get a much stronger emotional angel. Fairport’s songs, once delicate and beautiful with Sandy Denny‘s voice, now are being thicken by Thompson and passes through the filters of his shredded heart.
But above all, it’s just a solo artist alone there. That itself, takes something else from the artist. He already did brilliant albums as a musician, but it looks like this deep diving in the freezing waters of a solo show is a new beginning for him. And that’s how the show sounds like.
While still a guitar master, something in his delivery is still shaky, frightened and distant.
His charisma isn’t of an entertainer, but of someone who actually wrote songs that were written not long ago, for the first time in front of audience, alone, something didn’t happen for years.
I guess Thompson himself was a bit embarrassed by the naked performance, as he asked Joe Boyd, longtime producer and friend who owned Hannibal Records that released the album, to shelve the record, which made it unavailable for years, until its reissue in 1997 (with three bonus track, one of them is a beautiful version of Meet On The Ledge, a ‘standard’ of Fairport over the years).
True, this album is not perfect, and Thompson knew better performances then this one, but something in the documentation of this moment in life really moves me. He’s not sarcastic, not funny, not sophisticated – as true and honest as can be. In the end of the day, all the pyrotechnics of guitars, and stand up comedies, cannot make up if the soul isn’t there, and on Small Town Romance, the soul is definitely there.
Oh yea, and one last thing. The title track, that this blog is named after, is one of my favorite Thompson tracks. Too bad it’s not available elsewhere, but maybe it’s for the best. If it was recorded in the studio in the eighties, it might have suffered from the gigantic eighties productions Thompson had, which is really bad for this tiny song. Maybe it’s best for these little gems, to be left alone for the killer live performance, which is full with great songs, and even greater, solo, arrangements.