Wednesday 23 July 2014: the folk-rock guitar hero’s Acoustic Classics tour stops at Bath’s Forum, with The Rails in support
uilt in the 30s, Bath’s Forum is home to the Bath City Church on Sundays, but on this Wednesday evening the audience gathered to receive a folk sermon from Richard Thompson. And tonight’s congregation were suitably prepared for a reverential experience.
As a core member of electric folk rock band Fairport Convention in the 60s, then a husband-wife duo with Linda during the 70s, Richard Thompson built a solid reputation for impressive guitar playing and classic songwriting. Even as a solo artist during the decades that followed, fans were accustomed to seeing Richard with his trusty Fender Strat, playing as part of full live band. But this tour, replicating the ‘unplugged’ recording of his recent 14-track Acoustic Classics album, would see everything stripped to the bare essentials. Would it translate from the studio to a packed concert hall?
Before we got the chance to find out, the next generation stepped out in front of the hushed crowd, as The Rails took to the stage. A folk-rock duo consisting of Richard’s daughter Kami Thompson and guitarist James Walbourne, they are the tour’s regular support act. There’s plenty of musical ability in Kami’s DNA, and the pair combined beautifully, with some immaculate vocal harmonies and confident songwriting.
After the break, the main man took to the stage wearing his trademark beret and ripped through plenty of old favourites, including Valerie, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Rolling Stone magazine once described Richard Thompson as the “greatest guitarist in British folk rock” and it’s easy to see why – his impeccable fingerpicking is both awe-inspiring and mystifying. It’s one instrument, but it sounds like there could be two or three acoustic guitarists playing along in the wings.
Thankfully there were a few songwriting insights along the way – Johnny’s Far Away is a modern day sea song inspired by an imagined Celtic cruise (which he wrote despite never having been on a cruise), Fergus Lang is a character song about a property developer, and the Fairport Convention song Genesis Hall is “sort of a protest song about being thrown out of a squat in London.”
Despite being so exposed as a vocalist and musician, the entire set was practically flawless from start to finish. Although not regarded for his singing ability, the years of incessant touring have enriched Richard’s vocal and at times tonight it soared.
With an already ample set of over 17 songs played, Richard left the stage and returned for an encore, but it was the second, unexpected encore that saw The Rails join in on one last song, That’s Enough. It was an absolute treat to hear the three-part harmonies blend so effortlessly and see Richard finally play a guitar solo.
The satisfied crowd filed out of the Forum, making a lot more noise than they did on arrival. As with any tour in support of an album, there were doubts whether the recording would translate fully in the live setting; at first, even some die-hard fans wondered aloud whether the set would be found lacking. But by the end it was clear – the intimacy and raw emotion of this acoustic performance just wouldn’t be possible with a whole band. It was a bold decision on Richard’s part, but it paid off.
Richard Thompson’s album Acoustic Classics is out now and the tour continues across the US throughout October. For more, visit www.richardthompson-music.com