Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Loudon Wainwright and Richard Thompson @ The Calvin Theater, Northhampton, MA, October 6th, 2009
I bought tickets for the "Loud and Rich" concert, as it was billed, at the good old Calvin Theater, not long after I heard about the show's existence. I have been a Loudon Wainwright III fan for an awfully long time now and, while I don't know Richard Thompson's music as well, I'm routinely impressed when I hear him. And they've played on each other's albums quite a bit over the years.
The initial plan was to go with my man Anthony. He couldn't make it. Matt Winters' man Sandro didn't return my e-mail. So, I invited a former student to accompany me.
Although their musical styles are a bit different--Thompson is more of a rock and roller and more of a guitar stylist, while LWiii cares more about mood and song form--I sense definite spiritual similarities. They both have a strong sense of fun and a love of life that comes out most clearly in their songs about death. I said "fun," not humor. The latter would be Loudon's area of expertise. The performance of one of his death songs, "Donations," elicited laughter from the audience Tuesday night, while Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lighting" was one of the highlights of his set: fun without being at all funny. And the great thing about both of those songs is that they really aren't about death at all; they're about living well and being ready to meet one's maker.
Both of them also have woman problems. Not relationship problems; woman problems. I have heard people accuse both of these guys of being misogynistic, which I think is an overstatement. Their efforts at exploring their dysfunctional romantic lives are more engaging, thoughtful, and courageous than those of most of the younger singer-songwriters who fill their professional careers with such efforts. The liveliness of their songs, and the performances of those songs, doesn't suggest woman-hate to me, so much as confusion and desperation. I sense that their fans understand, at least subliminally, the tension between the skillfulness of these guys' arrangements (even on solo guitar), the cunning but emotive singing, and the songs themselves, whose lyrics are an often uncomfortable fit with the style of the playing. Sometimes, they don't get it at all: during Loudon's "Motel Blues," an audience member shouted "Roman Polanski!" audibly enough to be shushed by folks clear on the other side of the Calvin. On one new song, about how a poor housing market might yet save a marriage, there were titters of nervous amusement from the crowd. Loudon, whose inner life as revealed through song and performance seems a lot more interesting than Richard's, was conjuring up the tension that his best songs always do, between idealism and cold reality. And his performance, with all those facial ticks and leg lifts and tongue wagging, generates lots of different emotional effects: desperation, confusion, humor, sometimes all three simultaneously. Richard, meanwhile, appears to find his salvation through guitar solos. That's fine, too, especially when he goes through his lover's bureau drawers in "Cold Kisses."
I'll recap the show for the sake of readers interested in specifics. Loudon walked onto the stage at a few minutes past 8:00 and began with "Donations," from his fabulous 2001 album, Last Man On Earth, asking a friend if he or she would mind being the one to deal with his remains upon his death. Makes a generous offer too: "as for my corneas / I don't care who gets 'em / but all other organs and parts are for you." From there, he focused on newer material, both from his collection of Charlie Poole songs, High Wide and Handsome (2009), his rediscovery of his early catalogue, Recovery (2008), one song that he wrote for the play Lucky You, and some as yet unrecorded songs which he is calling "Songs for the New Depression." One of those new ones yielded one of the funniest moments of the night, "Paul Krugman Blues," while another yielded a particularly poignant moment, the aforementioned song about a couple possibly selling their house. And, much to my delight, he played two other songs from Last Man on Earth, "Surviving Twin" and "White Winos," both of which yielded great applause. From Recovery, there was "Motel Blues" and "Muse Blues" and "New Paint." And, in the middle of the set, Thompson came out to play on a couple of songs, including "Animal Song," which they recorded together for I'm Alright (1985).
Richard Thompson began with "Cooksferry Queen" and "Cold Kisses." I don't really know his songs as well as Loudon, so there were a few he played after that that I'd didn't recognize. In fact, my mind was actually starting to wander a bit, particularly during a modern sea shanty that he tried to get everyone to sing along with. But then, after explaining the idea of an LP to an audience old enough to enough, he infused the show with a jolt of energy that carried over to the end of the show. He nailed "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," which led into the quiet, lovely "Sunset Song" from Sweet Warrior (2007), and then into "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." He may have better songs, but the audience's cheer of recognition when Richard got that one going was priceless, the highlight of the night. And the man's roar when the angels in leather and chrome "come down from heaven to carry me home" I won't soon forget. As if that weren't enough, he followed up with one of best quieter songs, "Persuasion." Then came a song about some departed friends that I didn't know. Somewhere in there was a song about the worst tour he'd ever had, a song that I sense he hasn't recorded. He finished up with "Dad's Gonna Kill Me."
For the encore, Loud and Rich did one song each from each other's catalogue: "Down Where the Drunkard's Roll" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe."