HIGH FREQUENCIES: Richard Thompson — Playing for the faithful

Richard Thompson continues on a ‘restless highway’

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Photo credit: Tony Paris
WALKING ON A WIRE: From left, Richard Thompson, Michael Jerome, and Taras Prodaniuk.

Guitarist Richard Thompson performed with his Electric Trio at the Variety Playhouse Saturday, Dec. 1. Thompson has performed in Atlanta countless times, first as a member of the traditional British folk rock group Fairport Convention, though mostly as leader of bands he’s put together during his long and varied solo career. In all that time, he’s never given a bad performance in this city. How many musicians can you say that about? Exactly. You can count them on one hand. Maybe one finger.

It’s because he’s always so good that I wasn’t planning on seeing his most recent show in Little 5 Points. It was going to be good. It always is. And Dec. 1 was a busy night for music in Atlanta. Magnapop, Come, 86 and a number of other bands were playing at the Earl and 529 in East Atlanta Village for Henry Owing’s fiftieth birthday parties. David Franklin and Chris Edmonds were both scheduled at Smith’s Olde Bar. The original Mudcat and the Atlanta Horns, with Mandi Strachota and Little Joey Hoegger, were celebrating the release of Castaway (Original Cast Recording) with a live performance of the piece at the Avondale Towne Cinema. Certainly, a lot more risks would be taken on any one of those stages.

When the Electric Trio — Thompson, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome — took the Variety stage, it was obvious this was not to be an ordinary Richard Thompson show. No. This was something special.

They kicked off the set with “Bones of Gilead,” followed by “Her Love was Meant for Me,” two songs off of Thompson’s powerful new album, 13 Rivers. From the moment he strapped on his Fender Stratocaster, Thompson exhibited a dazzling display of guitar work, even for someone as accomplished as himself, and the band, in high gear from the start, never let up.

In the power trio format, no member of the band can afford not to hold their own. A trio can be devastating — or, fall flat, if the three musicians aren’t in sync — playing off each other while propelling each other. Saturday night, Thompson, Prodaniuk, and Jerome destroyed any preconceived notions of how good a Richard Thompson show can be. When Thompson was onstage alone, to sing a crowd favorite like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” he crushed versions he’s played in Atlanta before. Even the idea of the trio was stretched. For many songs, the group was joined by Bobby Eichorn from the crew on guitar, adding appropriate fills while not getting in the way.

Throughout the evening Thompson assured those in the audience he’d get to his older, more familiar songs they’d come to hear after performing material from the 13 Rivers. But no one expected just how far back he would go, pulling out songs he’d written for Fairport Convention in 1968, “Tale in Hard Time” and "Meet on the Ledge." The guitarist appeared to enjoy playing up the nostalgia of having written songs fifty years ago that still stand the test of time, but the concert was no career retrospective. Other than a couple of songs recorded with ex-wife Linda Thompson, “Dimming of the Day” (1975) and “Wall of Death” (1982), Thompson drew primarily from the ‘90s forward, though “Can’t Win,” (1988) was a tremendous treat.

That, too, was part of what made the Variety show so special. Instead of playing favorites, old stand-stand-by and familiar tunes — the one’s he’s played over and over and over — Thompson focused more on deep cuts and new material. In doing so, he played to no one’s expectations other than his own, allowing himself a freedom manifested in some of his best guitar playing ever. At 69 years old, he was playing with the fire and intensity of someone half his age, not with the wild abandon of youth, but the confidence and feel of someone in control of every note he wrenched out of his guitar.

It was an amazing show. Absolutely.

Something from nothing dept. … It wasn’t that long ago that Lucy Freas, co-founder with Josh Antenucci of Atlanta’s Rival Entertainment, was posting photos of her office — expansive views of the Georgia State Stadium — on her Facebook page as Rival was preparing for the inaugural concert at the former site of Turner Field with Foo Fighters headlining. Now, with Super Bowl LIII being hosted at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Freas and company are preparing for another first, building a concert venue at Atlantic Station from the ground up to present the annual DIRECTV Super Saturday Night the evening prior to the the big game. Construction has already started on the three-tiered, 72,000-square foot structure for the event, which brings Foo Fighters with special guests Run The Jewels back to Atlanta for the second time in less than a year. Once the concert is over, the same crews will work to dismantle it, offering those who attend a truly “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Baby, it’s cold outside dept. … This Thursday evening Michelle Malone and the Hot Toddies, the singer/songwriter’s cool Yule holiday incarnation, celebrates the release of Toddie Time, an EP of soulful and jazzy takes on traditional Christmas songs, at Eddie's Attic. The trio reinterprets classic Christmas tunes — think Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley — creating new jazz and blues arrangements that display Malone’s vocal prowess and innate ability to let the music take you to  another time and place. Joining Malone and guitarist Doug Kees this season is bassist Tommy Dean, no stranger to Atlanta music fans, nor to holiday merriment, having released A Swingin’ Christmas with his band, The League of Decency, in 1995. Expect spirits to be bright. … If you get to Decatur early enough, be sure to stop by Different Trains Gallery 2 at Cornerstone Bank, for a Holiday Open House from 5 to 8 p.m. featuring the exhibition of Atlanta artists Eben Dunn & Jim Johnson.

Unaspeckles meowl love dept. … Atlanta artist R. Land held quite an open house of his own at his Waddell Street Studios in the 30307, Sunday, Dec. 2. Featuring the debut of his new, limited edition Christmas ornaments, Hanukkah Claus,  as well as the artist’s more familiar works — who doesn’t know his iconic “Pray for Atlanta” design — more people were lined up to purchase items to take home then they were for the free pizza, beer, and wine Land provided. While verging on visual art sensory overload, the party took on a more musical direction with two performances by Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel, the group for which Land provided the artwork on its album 10.

Last splash dept. … As many already know, it’s time to say goodbye to the Avondale Towne Cinema. After four years of trying to make it work as a live music venue, owner Tony Longval has decided it’s time to close the multi-level performance space and move on. It’s sad to see such a great old theater go dark once again, especially with all of the work Longval put into it. While this Saturday, Dec. 8, The Rainmen play their final gig there, other shows are booked until the final curtain call Dec. 15 with the Third Annual Christmas Holiday Music Jam.

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