Dear Richard, Please Will You Play…? Three shows, three settings, one happy woman

Saturday night in Saratoga, California and for the third time in as many months, I’m gearing up to let an evening of music make me very, very happy.

​The Carriage House, at the Montalvo Arts Centre, is a lovely little jewel-box of a theatre, an exquisite setting, friendly and intimate. The terrace is jammed with people, filling out request slips and dropping them into a large clear bucket. Each slip is preprinted with the words Dear Richard, Please will you play [insert]. Bundled up against the December cold and waiting for the big glass doors to open, everyone scribbles their choices of song.

Yes indeed, it’s an all-request evening with Richard Thompson. I can hardly wait.

​There’s a lot of ballot-stuffing going on. I write “The Ghost of You Walks” on four separate slips of paper, “Don’t Let A Thief Steal Into Your Heart” on four more, and step back to give the man behind me his turn. I peer over his shoulder, as he writes “Wheely Down” on three separate rectangles. Interesting choice, since this is a solo show, and there’s no John Kirkpatrick here to do what he does on the original. But, whatever. My friend Jean has opted for “Persuasion” and “Oh I Swear”; I’m wondering what nuggets are going to be plucked from the bucket, and rendered in Thompson’s own unique style.

Three gigs in three months. Does it get better? Not unless it’s four gigs, or five.
​I got lucky this autumn, with a glorious back-to-back pair of shows. The first of those was a rollicking party just down the road from my house, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It featured Thompson and the current incarnation of his full band: Michael Jerome nailing the drumming, Taras Prodaniuk on bass (the rhythm section, it should be pointed out, was having almost too much fun), and the astonishing Pete Zorn on backup and counterpoint vocals, as well as an impressive assortment of instruments. The Fillmore being the venue that it’s always been, there was no nonsense about holding still and clapping politely – I’m 53, I have multiple sclerosis, and I don’t think I sat down for a single song, I was dancing so hard.

​(Insert Fillmore moment here: During a short acoustic break when the rest of the band disappeared offstage and left Thompson solo, I recognised the opening run of “One Door Opens”, and let out a hearty “YES! WHOOOOO! FINALLY!” even before he announced it – I can play that chord progression, and do, regularly. His head whipped around, he peered out into the crowd, and asked “Why THAT song?” I called back: “Because it’s BRILLIANT!”)

The second night, a more formal sit-down show, was at the Saratoga Mountain Winery, a venue just up the hill from Montalvo. While the music was wonderful, I have to admit that, after the cheerful kinetic anarchy of the Fillmore, the enjoyment level was radically different. The band cooked, just as hard as they’d done the night before – but it’s hard to really get all the way into it when every aisle has a glaring security guard, making sure you sit nice and still in your chair. Ever tried sitting still to a full-band version of “Tear-Stained Letter”? Especially when the chairs in question are folding chairs, uncomfortable as a chair gets. Not so very good.

So the gig that night was slightly sabotaged by the venue and staff. The whole experience was exemplified by a plaintive question, called out by a woman at the back of the audience: “Richard? Can we dance?” He’d just said yeah, sure, it’s fine with me, when he seemed to notice the frantic head-shakes from the FOH security, and got clearly uncomfortable about his answer.

But even security people and uncomfortable folding chairs can’t take anything away from just how hot this band is. The version of “A Bone Through Her Nose” alone would have been worth the price of admission, and worth the enforced politesse and leg cramps from sitting.

I’m wondering how this third show will stack up to the first two. Montalvo is new to me, so I have no idea what to expect. But already, talking with the outside security staff, the whole vibe is calmer and more cheerful than the Mountain Winery had been.

​That feeling follows us inside at ten minutes to eight, when the Carriage House doors open. Glory be, the seats are actual seats, old-fashioned plush things reminiscent of movie theatres in the pre-multiplex age. There’s legroom, and space, and visibility.

​The show – well. It’s an all-request evening. The acoustics in the room are excellent. And hell, it’s Richard Thompson on acoustic guitar, pulling slips out of the hat. What’s not to love?

​A few songs in, I’m wondering how to identify certain audience members, track them down, and throttle them. Considering the man’s original catalogue, what kind of maniac seriously asks him to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? Or “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (which he does, reggae-style)?

​Of course, despite the “are you kidding me?” choices, we get lots of Richard Thompson doing what I love best: playing his own stuff. He opens the show with “Turning of the Tide”. Jeannie gets one of her choices early on, a lovely, poignant version of “Persuasion”, that’s yearning but somehow remote. We get “Mingulay Boat Song”, with all of us singing along with the chorus. Some jammy sod requests, and gets, “Shaky Nancy”. The version of “From Galway to Graceland” nearly breaks me. The closer is a killer version of “The Great Valerio”.

​There’s also the running visual joke of the evening, which isn’t actually a joke: the nice bloke ready in the wings to take a song request Thompson doesn’t know, look it up on the internet, and print out the lyrics and music. Intentional or not, the effect – Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! I am the great and powerful Oz! – is comedy gold.

​Thompson is a consummate showman, not least because he has the born frontman’s trick: he’s completely easy with his audience, and they know it. Even if the jawdropping guitar work or the “we’re not worthy!”-inducing quality of his lyrics weren’t drawing the attention, that easiness would do it. He banters with the crowd the entire evening, never not in command up there, always making sure they’re with him and getting what they came for.

​While the entire gig is great, some moments are naturally standouts, and those standouts are likely to vary, depending on which audience member is doing the remembering. For me, it’s the explanation for the splendid “Johnny’s Far Away” (“This is a song about sex. Catholic sex. And about what musicians get up to on the road.”)

​And it’s a luminous, heart-wrenching version of the Left Banke classic, “Walk Away Renee”. He’s joined for a couple of songs, including this one, by a local harmonica player, George Galt; the harp adds such a lovely, mournful undercurrent to the song that I’m not surprised to find myself in tears at the end of it. It’s a moment, an emotional sucker-punch that makes for a vivid memory. Since that’s the way I process music, on a purely visceral level, that kind of sucker-punch is what I’ve come for.
​Afterward, dropping off a copy of my book “Matty Groves” as a thank-you, I get to chat with Thompson’s wife Nancy, who is friendly and warm and very nice indeed. I get to talk briefly with George Galt who, as it turns out, had never played “Walk Away Renee” in his life before tonight. That highlights the without-a-net nature of an all-request evening, all right.

​On the way back to San Francisco, Jeannie and I talk for a bit about tonight’s show. Not for long, though; I’ve got my iPod with me and a song in mind, and hell, I didn’t get my request. With the sunroof open, we head north up Highway 280, away from my third Richard Thompson show in as many months, leaving the lyrics to “The Ghost of You Walks” behind us on the cold night air.

About Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between.

But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.