Acoustic Classics serves as a fitting showcase for not only Thompson’s undeniable skills as a virtuoso guitarist, but also as a phenomenal songwriter capable of deftly tapping into a wealth of human emotions. Throughout, in a voice as immediately identifiable as that of his guitar work, Thompson pours his heart and soul into each performance, lending an air of intimate immediacy generally reserved for a live setting and often lost in translation when an artist enters the studio. That Thompson is able to replicate the feel of a live performance here speaks volumes to his excellence as both musician and performer, adding lines and flourishes here and there to add something new to each of these classic songs.
“I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”, from the seminal album of the same name he cut with his ex-wife Linda, lacks the punchy immediacy of the original, however Thompson’s highly stylized playing fills out the track in a way most solo acoustic performers could only dream to. Picking up the slack from a lack of accompaniment, his guitar tackles all missing instruments, helping to create an altogether full sound that well suits this classic and lends it a further free-wheeling feel hinted at in the original’s drunken marching band backing.
Playing like a concert less the applause, Thompson quickly segues into “Walking on a Wire” after hooking the listener with the well-known and well-loved opening track. A stellar song in and of itself, “Walking on a Wire” is given a powerhouse performance that finds Thompson virtually shouting near the end, quite literally giving the song his all, before emotionally collapsing at its conclusion. This heightened emotionality is present throughout, with each performance getting its own special, often idiosyncratic attention to new and well-established details that help breathe new life into each track.
On “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” from 1991’s Rumor and Sigh, one of the best-known songs here, Thompson takes ample liberties with the original’s guitar lines, expanding the basic themes and giving the song a more free-wheeling treatment that adds a pleasant note of freshness. During an extended instrumental break, Thompson allows his deft fretwork to take over, exploring an almost Fahey-esque Americana break that adds much to the original’s by comparison restrained performance. Performed in a similar manner in concert for a number of years now, it’s nice to have a clear recording of such a joyous, relaxed performance of this exceptional song.
“I Misunderstood”, also off Rumor and Sigh, is given an appropriately emotional performance that, somewhat jarringly, ends in a gradual studio fadeout, one of the few indications these performances did not come from an informal, intimate acoustic performance. This temporary shattering of illusion is quickly pushed aside with a devastatingly beautiful version of “From Galway to Graceland” which, next to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” might be one of Thompson’s best story songs. Elsewhere, the delicate beauty of the finger-picked melody of “Persuasion” perfectly compliments the bittersweet lyrical content and emotionally fraught vocal performance given here by Thompson.
The rollicking “Valerie” is given an inspired workout by Thompson whose guitar work lends the song a propulsive, percolating feel perfectly complimented by his exuberant vocal performance. His most outwardly pop performance here, it serves as a welcome respite from the often maudlin, albeit exceptional, material presented within this otherwise relatively subdued context. Lastly, “Dimming of the Day” proves an ideal closer, here given a somewhat languorous vocal treatment by Thompson as he stretches the syllables, refusing to let go before they’ve been explored to their fullest potential.
With such a voluminous body of work from which to pull, Thompson is able to focus on some of the best moments of his original material, revisiting each and reworking some in a manner that lends a sense of cohesion to the album that, given the stylistic disparity between “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, both fan favorites, might not otherwise have worked as well if performed in their original arrangements. Despite having a back catalog that stretches all the way to his time with legendary British folk rock act Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, Thompson focuses primarily, with the exception of 1974’s“I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”, on the past 30 odd years of his solo career. While this material is no doubt fresher in both his mind and the mind of the audience, it would have been nice to hear some older material given this similar, intimate acoustic treatment.
Ultimately a trivial criticism, Acoustic Classics plays like an hour-long live performance stripped of crowd noise, giving it an intimate immediacy that draws in the listener and makes them feel as though this were a command performance for one. With a performer as exceptional and influential as Thompson, what more could be asked?
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