After 30-plus years as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist, Live from Austin, TX is Richard Thompson’s first widely available live recording. While a smattering of live tracks have appeared here and there, and there have been some self-released live offerings, never before has it been easier to walk in to a store and bring home a live recording of an artist who is almost unparalleled in his ability to combine jaw-dropping instrumental skill with songwriting of keen emotional depth and insight.
While it’s impossible to complain about the release of a live album by an artist as talented and compelling as Thompson, it’s hard to get overly excited about this particular release. The material from the 2002 concert leans heavily toward his most current album at the time, 1999’s solid but unspectacular Mock Tudor. The awareness that the performances are generally less than transcendent is amplified when his catalogue contains such spellbinding beauties as “Calvary Cross” from 1993’s three-disc retrospective Watching the Dark or “Night Comes In” from 1976’s Guitar, Vocal. When it’s clear that there are masterpieces in the vaults, it’s hard to be overjoyed by solid craftsmanship. This is a perfectly fine show, and a good entry for the neophyte, but the notion of Thompson as craftsman, when he is capable of near-genius, is somewhat disappointing.
Even so, the disc does an admirable job of displaying the variety that is one of Thompson’s greatest strengths. Almost evenly split in half by acoustic and electric guitar- led performances, the stylistic ground the man is able to cover over the course of the album is simply astounding. In the space of three songs he moves from the cabaret jazz of “All Bowlly’s in Heaven” to “Dry My Tears and Move On”‘s soul balladry to the tense neuroticism of “Easy There, Steady Now”. And all that is aside from his usual forays into Celtic-inflected balladry (“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”) and bouncy rock (“Cooksferry Queen”).
In something of a welcome respite from the traditionally immaculate production of his solo albums, Live showcases Thompson’s guitar and voice backed only by his long-time sparring partner Danny Thompson on upright bass and Michael Jerome on drums. It’s a compelling trio. R. Thompson’s fretwork is beautifully supported by D. Thompson’s sumptuous tone and intelligent, but wholly complementary playing, while Jerome brings a subtle and flexible approach to the drum kit.
The only unfortunate thing about the way that Thompson’s consummate skill comes across on the album is that one never gets the sense of either the manic intensity of a cut like “Can’t Win”, nor the sad-eyed storytelling of “From Galway to Graceland”, which can also both be found on Watching the Dark. The way those performances build inexorably toward almost unbearable catharses are prime examples of just the kind of emotional involvement that’s altogether lacking on Live from Austin, TX.
The album does edge towards the kind of intensity I’m talking on its closing three songs. On “Shoot out the Lights”, one of Thompson’s venerable in-concert warhorses, and “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)”, the ragged emotions of the lyrics are brilliantly elucidated by guitar playing of razor wire tension and bleeding savagery. The set concludes with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, perhaps Thompson’s best known song, and without a doubt one of the most romantic and beautiful songs ever written. I promise you’ll be inspired to hit repeat, if not steal, its lyric as a poem to your lover.
While Live is not the jaw-dropping Richard Thompson live album that must exist somewhere on tape, it has plenty to remind people why Thompson remains one of music’s most talented—and criminally underappreciated—artists. Let’s hope it’s just the tip of the iceberg.