Richard Thompson + Madeleine Peyroux

Richard Thompson + Madeleine Peyroux


Richard Thompson
Madeleine Peyroux

In a musical career spanning almost four decades, Richard Thompson has largely focused his attention on the darker corners of the human experience. One of his earliest songwriting efforts, “Tale in Hard Time”, opens with the lines, “Take the sun from my heart / Let me learn to despise.” The characters populating a large chunk of his subsequent catalog take this sentiment as a credo. To be sure, there are bright spots in Thompson’s oeuvre — a handful of swooning love songs, a sprinkling of sprightly novelty numbers — but the bulk of his work is black as pitch. That’s why seeing Thompson’s live show can be a bit of a shock: onstage, the songwriter is positively puckish, delivering even the most harrowing tune with a wink and a grin. Wearing his trademark black beret — an accessory he hasn’t been seen in public without for years — Thompson plowed through 90 minutes worth of, as one of his long-ago album titles aptly put it, “doom and gloom from the tomb” in Boulder. But thanks to his upbeat stage presence, Thompson’s audience spent more time laughing and less feeling utterly depressed. It’s not as easy as it sounds: “King of Bohemia”, the second song he played, may be the saddest, most world-weary lament Thompson — or anyone else, for that matter — has ever penned. As he played the song’s final, fragile notes, he shrugged and chuckled to himself. Sure, the song’s sad, he seemed to be saying, but that’s all it is, a sad song. Of course there was more to focus on than just the lyrics. As any review of his live show will proclaim, Thompson is an unparalleled guitarist. Even in solo acoustic mode, as he was this evening, he’s capable of astonishing fretwork, somehow maintaining a steady rhythmic pulse while plucking out sparkling, complex lead runs. By now it may be a clich√© to say this about him, but it’s hard to figure out how one man is capable of making such sounds, even when you’re sitting less than a dozen feet away from him with an unobstructed view of his hands. And though he’s best known for his folk-rock leanings, his influences go much further. During the instrumental mid-section of “Hokey Pokey”, Thompson’s sexual innuendo-laced ode to ice cream (“Banned by the BBC!” he crowed), the guitarist seemed to be channeling a half-remembered Charlie Parker solo, filtered through a skiffle band. A curious pairing but, against all odds, he made it work. Thompson was sharing the bill with the young Brooklyn-based singer Madeleine Peyroux, who made a splash back in the mid-’90s with the jazzy Dreamland, and then promptly vanished. She’s making a comeback on the shoulders of a fine new CD on Rounder, Careless Love, which features small jazz combo renditions of songs by such disparate writers as Elliott Smith, Hank Williams, and W.C. Handy. Her handlers would probably love to see Peyroux blossom into the next Norah Jones — and their dreams may yet come true. Thanks to strategic placement in Starbucks coffeehouses all over the country, Careless Love has become quite the sleeper hit. But despite the dubious distinction of being the current music of choice for latte sippers everywhere, Peyroux’s interpretive talents, at their best, are anything but easy listening. Onstage, she led her band through almost all of Careless Love, her smoky, Billie Holliday-esque voice high in the mix. The opening number, “Don’t Wait Too Long”, is the most Norah-like tune in Peyroux’s repertoire and — surprise, surprise — she co-wrote it with Jones’s frequent collaborator Jesse Harris. The tune, with its generic lyrics and meandering melody, is also one of her worst, though the crowd of graying Boulderites seemed to enjoy it just fine. Things improved considerably as the set wore on, as Peyroux located the gallows humor at the heart of an otherwise jaunty reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, and breezed through an appropriately bittersweet rendition of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. The best of Peyroux’s cover versions don’t sound like pop songs dressed up in ill-fitting jazz clothes. In her hands, the songs sound tailor-made for such arrangements. Peyroux’s set peaked with her bone-chilling performance of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars”. The song sounded as heavy as a lead weight. Its deathly piano notes hung in the air like omens as her chilly vocals lent a sinister feel to the proceedings. It was creepy, in an almost David Lynchian fashion. All of a sudden Starbucks felt very, very weird.