Richard Thompson could say more in one line than I could in a whole song.
— John Mellencamp
I was stupid not to bring a notebook along with me to the Richard Thompson show at Birdy’s. Having seen Thompson before I should have known that he would break out at least one non-album song about current events, and the lyrical content of that song would be so witty that I’d want to rush out and recite it word-for-word to my friends. This night found Thompson making sport of Janet Jackson’s breast-baring episode at this year’s Super Bowl in the form of a traditional English folk song that included some useful advice for Ms. Jackson. Like I said, I neglected to bring a notebook, so I can’t share with you precisely what Thompson had to say, but I do remember the refrain, which went like this: “If you’re going to shove your titty in somebody’s face, shove it in a baby’s, shove it in a baby’s, shove it in a baby’s.” Thompson later in the song went on to helpfully explain that “titties are good for a squeeze or a tease, but babies need them too.” Juvenile? Yeah, but also acutely funny when pouring forth from the mouth and guitar of Richard Thompson, a singer-songwriter who stands in stark contrast to hyper-sentimental, hyper-cute sugar-pop balladeers that define the genre these days. Although well into his fifties, Thompson looked lean and lively onstage at Birdy’s. Seeing him in such fine physical condition was a refreshing sight for eyes that are conditioned to expect a disheveled, substance-damaged spectacle when confronted with an aging rocker whose formative days were spent in the ’60s and ’70s. Thompson, a devout Muslim, exudes the glow of a man who treats his body respectfully. Sure, he looked a bit anachronistic in his trademark black beret, but fashion is the least of Thompson’s concerns. He’s way past fashion, and his comfort in his own skin is something you can feel while watching him perform. Thompson’s physical and psychological health probably have a lot to do with the enduring quality of his songwriting, which now, over thirty years after he helped start the influential folk outfit Fairport Convention, is as sharp, literate and lucid as ever. Thompson is also still a fierce, emotional performer. After the first couple of songs, Thompson joked with the audience, saying with a smile that “religious fundamentalists without a sense of irony will really like this next one,” and went straight into the teeth-gritting fundamentalist satire “Outside of the Inside” from The Old Kit Bag. His voice, rich and resonant, trembled with the blind self-righteousness of a would-be religious fanatic as he drew the first verse from his guts: ”God never listened to Charlie Parker / Charlie Parker lived in vain / Blasphemer, womanizer / Let a needle numb his brain / Wash away his monkey music / Damn his demons / Damn his pain!” Thompson’s mock-religious indignation riled the audience up, and the mania carried over into his stirring performance of “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)” from 1999’s Mock Tudor. The song — a seething tell-off tale told from the perspective of a jilted lover — inflamed the crowd, who initiated a game of call and response with Thompson during its anthemic, anger-fueled chorus:
Thompson: I’ll crawl back–
Audience: Crawl back!
Thompson: –under my stone! I’ll crawl back–
Audience: Crawl back!
Thompson: Under my stone!
You get the idea. I witnessed more audience-performer synergy at Birdy’s that night — where the median age had to be 33 at the absolute lowest — than I have at any other show in recent months. That’s a strong testament to Thompson, whose presence in Indianapolis really deserved a larger venue than Birdy’s, but who all the same gave the impression of a man who’s at peace with his lot, large audiences or not.