In recording two concerts by the Richard Thompson Band in winter 1983-84, the German music TV show Rockpalast preserved a vital moment in the great musician-songwriter’s long-running career. Fans can now experience these shows via the new three-CD, two-DVD set Live at Rockpalast.
Thompson began by helping to invent English folk-rock in the ’60s with Fairport Convention. Through the ’70s he established himself as a songwriter and guitarist of the highest order. His early ’80s albums “Shoot Out the Lights” and “Hand of Kindness” contained many songs that have endured as classics, and that material formed the bulk of the set list Thompson and his band performed at the Rockpalast concerts in Hamburg and Paris.
The concerts feature a mix of uptempo originals (“Tear-Stained Letter,” “Man in Need,” “The Wrong Heartbeat”); dark ballads and slow rockers (“Night Comes In,” “Shoot Out the Lights,” “How I Wanted You”); and traditional folk numbers featuring accordionist Alan Dunn. Taken together, they showcase Thompson’s brilliant songwriting and aggressive, sometimes psychedelic guitar wizardry. Both sets include Dunn, Fairport’s Simon Nicol on rhythm guitar, and sax players Pete Zorn and Pete Thomas, with Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks on bass and drums respectively at the Hamburg concert and Rory McFarlane and Gary Conway taking over for the MIDEM show in Paris. The sound quality is better at the Paris show, but the Hamburg concert contains several more Thompson songs and a series of high-energy early-rock-n-roll covers as encores.
Richard Thompson is still actively touring and writing – indeed his 2013 album Electric was one of his best ever. But this collection is a valuable snapshot of how he was putting across his vision at a time when he was writing many of the songs that have made him an icon, as well as both a musicians’ musician and a songwriters’ songwriter.
Every time he takes a guitar solo during these concerts, you feel he really is taking his chances on the Wall of Death. And watching him is one of the major benefits of having the DVDs. Honestly, a lot of his guitar work in a live setting makes more sense when you can see him play. His zen-like facility astounds.
It’s fun to see Zorn and Thomas’s onstage antics, Dunn’s blissful mien, and Nicol’s cereal-box guitar. And it’s a pleasure to witness the way the band gels as a unit on the fast numbers – their sax-driven “Two Left Feet,” for just one example, is an amazingly tight piece of work.
As with the audio, the Paris video is the more rewarding experience. In Hamburg the band has much less room on stage, they seem a bit less relaxed at first, and the sound mix isn’t as good, with the instrumental solos, including Thompson’s all-important guitar licks, often nearly lost in the mix, particularly in the louder numbers.
On the other hand, the Hamburg audience is the more enthusiastic, and the band feeds off that energy. And some solos, like Thompson’ titanic turn in the epic “Night Comes In,” ring forth undeniably at both concerts. For those attuned to the low end, Dave Pegg’s expressive bass playing in Hamburg is a pleasure. And for a five-disc box set like this, the price is right.
Fans are likely to eat up the varied mix of brilliant Thompson originals and fun covers. The latter range from a ramped-up “O Danny Boy” to “Great Balls of Fire” and a sultry version of the Glenn Miller novelty number “Pennsylvania 6-5000” complete with accordion solo and shouts in British accents. And the videos, in particular, may reward even music fans unfamiliar with the eclectic and distinctive oeuvre of the great Richard Thompson.