Richard Thompson Band’s Live At Celtic Connections (DVD)

cover artThe most recent incarnation of the Richard Thompson Band started its run with a string of nine or 10 shows along the West Coast of the U.S. in February of 2010. They played a set of 13 new songs that were recorded each night and those recordings became the live album Dream Attic released in late 2010. At each of those shows the band also played a second set of about 10 songs picked from nearly every period of Thompson’s more than 40-year career in folk-rock. I was fortunate enough to attend one of those shows, on February 19 in Eugene, Oregon.

The band went on to tour behind Dream Attic over the ensuing year or so, including a night at the Celtic Connections festival in January 2011 in Glasgow. That show is presented on this superb DVD release from Eagle Rock Entertainment. (It’s the first DVD release of a Thompson performance since, I think, 2005’s Austin City Limits set, taken from a 2001 appearance.)

First let me say “what a difference a year makes!” I ranked the Eugene show about in the middle of the dozen or so Thompson performances I’ve seen. The Glasgow show, had I been present, would surely have been vying for a spot in the top three or four. All those months of working this material truly tightened up the band and allowed them to bring these songs fully to life.

This iteration of the RTB is such a sympathetic ensemble. Of course Thompson has worked with versatile sideman Pete Zorn since the 1982 Shoot Out The Lights U.S. tour. And Michael Jerome has toured and recorded with Thompson off and on since 1999. Bassist Taras Prodaniuk is a relative newcomer, though, and Dream Attic was the first RT tour and record for violinist Joel Zifkin. But they all play together now like old hands, supporting the music and Thompson like they were born to it.

I have to confess that most of the Dream Attic songs haven’t much grown on me yet, but this DVD is changing that. “Among The Gorse, Among The Grey” and “Burning Man” both were played beautifully, the group making the most of the songs’ melancholy and pensive moods. The gospel-influenced “Haul Me Up” was rollicking and “Demons In Her Dancing Shoes” suggested both Celtic and funky R&B influences. They practically burned the place down with the serial-murder song “Sidney Wells,” and two of the lower-profile numbers, “Big Sun Falling In The River” and “Stumble On” both revealed themselves as among the most accessible of RT’s songs. This performance still didn’t make me a big fan of “The Money Shuffle” or “Here Comes Geordie,” but both performances were pleasing and conducive of toe-tapping and head-bobbing, and the ear-worm potential of their catchy choruses is undeniable.

In addition to the pyrotechnics of “Sidney Wells,” the highlights of the Dream Attic set were the final two songs, the anthemic “A Brother Slips Away” on which all four of the backing musicians sang harmonies, and the slow-burning “If Love Whispers Your Name.”

I’m going to insert my comments about the concert film’s production values here, because I was most impressed by the work on that last song. I rarely am 100 percent pleased with concert films of the past 20 years, due to the MTV-inspired jumpy editing; and in places, this film falls into that very trap. That said, this film also has some excellent work both in the shooting and the editing. The first minute or so of “When Love Whispers Your Name” is one long shot on a camera that begins in the air over the audience and slowly zooms in until Thompson’s face fills the frame. And there are several times in the film when the camera segues from a closeup of Prodaniuk’s bass to a closeup of Thompson’s guitar, done mostly by a change of focus; shots from above Thompson’s right shoulder that show both him and Zifkin as they play are also revelatory. Prodaniuk has a very animated face and is having a lot of fun as he plays, and the camera catches that. And Jerome is a whirling dervish of a drummer, and the cameras wisely don’t resist his physical appeal. The lighting is beautifully done and the sound for the most part is quite good. Sometimes Zorn’s vocals or horns are a bit too loud and Zifkin’s violin too quiet. But really, I thought about these points for less time than it has taken you to read about them. For the most part, the filming, editing and post-production combine to make this a very good concert DVD.

The second set starts with one of my favorite Thompson songs, one I’ve never had the privilege of seeing him perform in person, “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” from his first solo album Henry The Human Fly. It’s a lovely rendition, with nice backing vocals from the band, and of course RT’s own vocals have improved immensely over the years. And these days on the guitar breaks, Thompson goes for a more full and nuanced guitar sound than the “thin high mercury” he used in those early years.

From “Angels” he launches right into a lengthy, energetic and highly charged “Can’t Win,” which I have to say is one of the best RT Band performances I’ve ever seen, right up there with the venomous “Put It There, Pal” that he played on the You? Me? Us? tour in 1996. The rest of the set runs the gamut from the noir jazz of “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven” to the world-music lilt of “One Door Opens” to the ballsy swagger of “I’ll Never Give It Up,” the perennial crowd-pleaser “Wall of Death” and the pseudo-Cajun romp “Tear Stained Letter” that closes the regular show. It’s followed by a brief encore of the lovely ballad “Take Care The Road You Choose” and the garage-rock of “A Man In Need.” I will say that “Al Bowlly” is a particularly good choice for this band, with Zifkin playing the Grappelli to RT’s Django.

Here’s a video of “Wall Of Death” from that set.

For a welcome change of pace, especially for those who place high value on Thompson’s solo acoustic performances, there are a couple of bonus tracks from the 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival – “Uninhabited Man” from Mock Tudor and “Johnny’s Far Away” an overlooked gem from 2007’s Sweet Warrior. RT gets a visible kick from the lusty crowd singalong on the chorus.

It’s impossible to come up with any superlatives that have not already been heaped upon Richard Thompson, and he deserves them all even on an average night. This was not an average night, with a good crowd of Glaswegians, a road-tested band and the charged atmosphere of Celtic Connections. This one is a must-have for any Thompson fan. Not that they need me to tell them that.

Eagle Rock, 2012

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.