“Thank you — that’s the last time I’m going to sit in a darkened room for 17 years,” said a smiling Linda Thompson as she returned to the stage for an encore at the end of her first live performance on tour in support of her new CD, Fashionably Late.
Thompson was beginning her first tour of the U.S. since the breakup of Richard and Linda Thompson in 1982, on the same stage where said Richard had appeared in a solo acoustic performance just five weeks earlier. She was received warmly and enthusiastically by a crowd that was about half the size of her ex-husband’s.
It’s a fine wire Linda Thompson is walking as she returns to the stage after 20 years. Unless she wants to be just another Baby Boomer nostalgia act (and one whose following was limited, if cultish, to begin with), she has to sing her new songs, and they have to be good enough to hold the crowd’s attention. But she also has to sing a few of the old ones, and do them well enough to satisfy the die-hards who’ve been listening to her old discs for the past two decades and more.
She trod that wire confidently with hardly a wobble.
In a 90-minute set, she sang all but one of the songs off her new album, and leavened them with some of her best and most popular numbers from the Richard-and-Linda days and a few other well-selected chestnuts.
It helped mightily that she was accompanied by son Teddy Thompson, whose voice is a perfect complement to his mother’s, and who is probably a better singer now in his mid-20s than his father was at that age; and by daughter Kamila (“Kami”), the youngest of the couple’s three offspring, who also contributed sweet harmonizing. Linda was backed by a serviceable band that included Teddy and Kami on acoustic guitars, Jason Crigler on electric guitar and mandolin, and Martin Green on accordion and keyboards.
But the focus was entirely on the songs, and Linda delivered. Singer and audience took each other’s measure on the openers, “Dear Mary and “All I See,” and found each other amenable. Then she hammed it up on “Weary Life,” her wry, folksy take on the hard lot of a married woman, and was rewarded with laughter at nearly every couplet. She and her kids exchanged pleased and relieved glances, and the show took wings.
Amongst such somber fare as her ballad of homesickness for Scotland, “Banks of the Clyde,” and the very English folk-rock murder ballad “Nine Stone Rig,” and the *a capella* Scottish ballad of domestic violence, “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk,” Thompson’s humorous patter and a few lighter numbers kept things from descending into doom and gloom. Accompanied only by herself on guitar, she sang a reworked version of an old Gerry Rafferty song that she said Rafferty wrote after she broke up with him, “His Mother Didn’t Like Me Anyway.”
Her powerful but understated delivery of the songs from Fashionably Late leant them a vibrancy they sometimes lack on the CD. And the songs themselves, mostly co-written by Linda and Teddy, reveal the mother-son duo as skillful writers of modern English folk-rock — and also fine interpreters others’ works in the genre, as evidenced by their evocative duet on Lal Waterson’s “Evona Darling.”
It was interesting to contemplate family dynamics as daughter and son sang backing vocals on Linda’s bitter divorce song, “Telling Me Lies.” But the real magic came when this new family grouping sang the songs of Richard and Linda Thompson. They eased into the back-catalog about midway through the main set with the folk-pop “Lonely Hearts” from 1979’s *Sunnyvista,* then didn’t return to the well until the final number of the set, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” the title song from Richard and Linda’s critically acclaimed first acclaimed album.
I never had the privilege to see Richard and Linda when they were still together, so I can only judge from their recordings. On that basis, Linda seems never to have been a particularly powerful or forceful singer, on the order of Sandy Denny or Linda Ronstadt. Her value as a singer came from her ability to wring every last nuance of emotion from a song, without descending into bathos or hysteria.
And in that case, a 20-year hiatus has not diminished Linda Thompson’s abilities in the least. She may in fact have gained some authority with maturity.
That certainly seemed the case with her first encore number, a quietly devastating reading of what may be Richard Thompson’s most affecting song, “Dimming of the Day.” Accompanied only by Teddy on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, Linda closed her eyes and inhabited this hymn of love and longing, holding the hearts and souls of the audience in a way that many lesser singers can only pray for.
She closed with Rufous Wainwright’s jazzy, loungey “Paint and Powder Beauty,” and an unexpected rendition of one of Richard Thompson’s most idiosyncratic pieces (and a perennial favorite of the hardcore fans) “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away,” from his solo debut, “Henry the Human Fly.”
“This was a lovely audience,” she said later, as she sat cross-legged on the corner of the stage, chatting with hangers-on and signing posters, photos and CD booklets. The audience was merely repaying the performer for an evening of engaging music, skillfully delivered by a performer who was personable, friendly and witty. Here’s hoping she’s not gone so long this time.