“Loud & Rich” is the official tour title of Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III’s current joint excursion, and it’s clear that they mean it as a joke. But tickets were $40 at the door and $45 in advance, which is not exactly going to bring in the kids. I’ll admit this a personal issue for me. I wrote a book about Richard Thompson that came out last June (it’s called Shoot Out The Lights, number 58 in the 33 1/3 series of short books about single albums). When I first approached Thompson’s management looking for interviews, I mentioned that some of Thompson’s contemporaries from the Brit-folk scene of the late-60s have been engaging a younger audience, and I hoped that this book could do the same for Thompson. His management informed me that Thompson had no interest in any such project. From the price of tickets to the prevalent gray in the UT Ballroom crowd on Saturday night, it appears that Thompson still has no interest in engaging younger listeners.
Which is a damn shame, because he appeared to be having more fun at Saturday’s show than any time I’ve seen him in the last decade. His guitar skills remain unsurpassed, and his ability to wreak pleasing discordance out of his leads is more akin to the fans of Bartok and avant-jazz that you find among indie rock guitar gods rather than among his blues-besotted Boomer contemporaries. His utter commitment to his songs, no matter how dark and twisted they become, is a generation-spanning gift. But okay, I get it, he doesn’t care that his audience continues to age with him.
So let’s hop back to Loudon Wainwright III, father to Rufus and Martha, actor in Judd Apatow comedies, and professional smart-ass. His sense of humor is actually what has deterred me from exploring his music further. Experience has taught me that comedy musicians have diminishing returns, as jokes grow staler with familiarity (y’know, that funny rhyme scheme isn’t so funny the fifth time you’ve heard it), and many jokey songwriters have no emotional connection to make up the difference. But I know that Wainwright is capable of an emotional connection. The three songs I most associate with the guy (all culled from a mix tape made by an old friend) are “Suddenly It’s Christmas,” which mocks the retail rush into the neverending Xmas season, “Thanksgiving,” which laments how gathering with family becomes fraught with emotion as people grow older, and “The Acid Song,” a jokey song about drug use. I hear all of these songs as having some real emotion behind them, but as I said, Wainwright’s jokesterism has always left me at some remove. Which may be the point. The set he played on Saturday, which started with the seasonally appropriate “Suddenly It’s Christmas” and “Thanksgiving,” mixed the jokeyness with intimate and obviously autobiographical material suggesting that songwriting is as much about therapy for Wainwright as it is about entertaining people.
That’s not so unusual, I suppose, but Wainwright’s fearlessness and rapier wit made for some serious whiplash during his set. On the plus side were his songs “Rowena,” based on letters that his maternal grandfather sent his maternal grandmother when he was courting her, “Dead Man,” about how inheriting his father’s things brought him face-to-face with his own mortality, and several songs where I don’t know their names. In one, heaven is a place where everyone drinks, smokes, eats like a glutton, and has sex constantly. Another was about a woman in the Durango, CO airport who damaged his guitar and then lied about it (she’s called “Susie” through most of the song, although the last verse reveals that he changed her name to avoid a lawsuit, just before he begins to use her real name). His last song – one of the most queasily intimate songs I’ve ever heard – was about his inappropriate sexual tension with his mother when they would drink and discuss his (apparently monstrous) father. Say what you will about musical provocateurs in metal or glam, but as far as shocking material goes, they have nothing on this aging folkie.
I didn’t like some of Wainwright’s other songs. One, from his recent release of songs popularized by the early 20th century balladeer Charlie Poole, brought into the sharp relief the disparity between the roughness of Poole’s old-timey country and the relative friendliness of Wainwright’s approach. I’m generally not one to get hung up on authenticity, but it seems weird to me to undercut the threat of the song (in this case the song was “Didn’t He Ramble,” about the no-good brother of the singer) by playing it fairly sweetly and straightforwardly. I get that Wainwright likes the song and feel a connection with it, but the connection was simply not apparent in his version on Saturday night.
That disconnect between performer and material wasn’t a problem with Richard Thompson, with one notable exception. Thompson first appeared on stage towards the end of Wainwright’s set for a blues jam. Although Thompson would be the first to admit that he’s not a bluesy player, it was fun to see him step outside of his comfort zone. He started his own set with two barnburners: “When The Spell Is Broken,” which plays a little more relaxed when he has a full band but which, strangely, flies at full gallop when it’s solo and acoustic, and “Feel So Good,” a rocker built around one of Thompson’s most interesting misanthropic narrators. The misanthropy carried over into the third song, “Cold Kisses,” from the little-loved 1997 album you? me? us?, in which the narrator rifles through his lady love’s things to gather evidence that she’s carrying a torch for former flings. Excellent, dark stuff.
Thompson’s new political song “Time’s Gonna Break You” was introduced with a speech (it sounded a little practiced, but what are you going to do?) about how the problem with Hell is that those who don’t go will miss out on watching the tormented suffer. Thompson mentioned that the list of people he knows will end up suffering in Hell includes certain prominent political figures from Texas. The song itself is pretty good, much better than the other recent song on the setlist, “Johnny’s Far Away.” His explanation that this song was meant to be a new sea shanty (the lyrics are about a musician working on a luxury cruise ship) was far more entertaining than the song itself, a somewhat mean-spirited tract about sexual repression.
Thompson seemed committed to “Johnny’s Far Away” at least, but when he played the obligatory “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” he hit the only truly sour note of the night. It’s a wonderful song, one of my favorites and one of the best he’s written (and that’s saying something), but he plays it like a man who has played it every night of his life for the last 20 years. Which he has. I mean, he has played it at breakneck speed since the first time I heard it back in 1992, but it used to seem like a song that he enjoyed playing. On Saturday it was rushed and the grimace on his face was not the appearance of a man enjoying himself. I wish he’d retire it instead of massacre it. Either for a while or forever, I don’t care. It definitely suffered in comparison to a song that he has every right to hate: “Beeswing,” another fan favorite that he’s played at every freakin’ show since 1994 or so. And yet Thompson played “Beeswing” with elegance and grace, stretching out certain phrases as if they still mean something to him. It’s not anywhere close to my list of favorite Thompson songs, but it’s clear that he still loves it. Would that all musicians could love their songs so well.
The highlights for me included “Crawl Back (Under My Stone),” a rollicking song with a lead where Thompson was doing something so unusual that I don’t have words for it. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of guitar greats play, but I’ve never seen or heard anyone – including Thompson – do this move, which involved hammering-on and bending notes at the same time, and I’m not even beginning to capture how odd and impressive was its modulating effect. From the look on his face, Thompson knew that he was doing something unique and fascinating; he had the look of a child riding a bike for the first time, a beautiful thing to see on the face of a 60-year-old man.
Another highlight was “The Sun Never Shines On The Poor,” an older tune with an Eastern European feel that Thompson has re-arranged and brought back into his set because, as he explained, we’re “all socialists now.” This sentiment is somewhat undercut by the lyrics of the song, which identify emotional poverty as the worst kind of poor one can be. Which is true. Also excellent: “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” and “Down Where The Drunkards Roll,” which featured Wainwright’s rhythm guitar and backing vocals. The two also performed Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” the old Leiber & Stoller song that Wainwright first recorded back in the 70s.
They preceded their version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with some banter about the awfulness of Sting songs, and Thompson made a couple of jokes during the night about how he and Wainwright aren’t popular artists like U2 and Sting. Considering that those musicians aren’t exactly groundbreaking musicians (are they popular at all with anyone younger than 35?), and considering that Thompson referred to himself as a curmudgeon at least once, this only reenforced my impression that Thompson isn’t interesting in reaching out to a younger audience. Bert Jansch is reaching out. His albums appear on the indie-folk label Drag City, and he’s popping up on Babyshambles albums. Vashti Bunyan, another contemporary from the late 60s Brit-folk scene, is playing with Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. Nick Drake had a resurgence after that VW commercial, some ten years ago now. But Thompson has had a more consistent career, touring and recording at a fairly stable rate through the years. I guess it’s clear that I think he’s in a rut right now, but it looks like an easy rut for him. He can command a premium ticket price from his audience, even if his audience is only some 500 or so fans in Austin (ah, it should be more!). I know that building this audience has been hard work for Thompson. And he was definitely having fun on Saturday. The last time I saw him enjoying himself so much while on tour was about a decade back, when he was touring with Danny “No Relation” Thompson. Maybe the man needs a foil to keep himself sharp.