April 2 saw the Savannah Music Festival present a somewhat unlikely — yet superbly well-matched — double bill of acoustic-based songwriting at the Lucas Theatre.
Grammy-winning, Austin, Texas-based wunderkind Sarah Jarosz opened this midday show with a full set of intricate, guitar-based ballads, laments and ruminations that left the near-capacity 1,200-seat room enthralled and clamoring for more.
The 25-year-old Jarosz, who alternated throughout her set on acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and mandolin, cut a somewhat diminutive figure onstage. However, her immense talents — as a clever lyricist, achingly beautiful vocalist and phenomenal instrumentalist — lent her a towering presence. Backed more than ably by the sympathetic duo of stand-up bassist Jeff Picker and singing guitarist Anthony da Costa, Jarosz offered up numerous songs from her most recent album, as well as standout tracks drawn from her earlier releases, her sweet and supple voice and demeanor resembling a near-perfect hybrid of fellow Texan Nanci Griffith (an avowed influence) and post-modern folk icon Suzanne Vega.
While Jarosz stood mostly stock still at the mic for the duration of her set, only occasionally swaying a bit during instrumental passages, da Costa played with a great degree of physicality, bobbing and weaving near and far from his mic as he occasionally added tight vocal harmonies. At times, when he moved from acoustic to electric guitar, da Costa coaxed squalls of distorted, reverb-laden lines from his amp in a close approximation of the idiosyncratic guitar style of the great performer and record producer-engineer Daniel Lanois. These occasionally dissonant counterpoints to Jarosz’s more reserved and subtle strumming and vocal delivery (and Picker’s subdued, but rock-solid plucked and bowed bass work) added a component of tension — even menace — to the proceedings that enhanced the pathos inherent in some of the material on display.
At the close of a satisfying set that included both a Nanci Griffith cover Jarosz fondly recalled as one of her mother’s favorite tunes and a showcase spot for da Costa to take the lead and perform one of his own tunes (a dark and sardonic Dan Bern-esque ode to a rather dysfunctional romantic relationship), the audience responded with thunderous applause and a standing ovation, which saw the trio return to the stage for a one-song encore.
After a short intermission, living legend Richard Thompson strode out with a charismatic sense of purpose that has been his trademark for decades. Dressed in what can only be called a “Richard Thompson costume” of black beret, T-shirt, well-worn sleeveless black denim vest and black jeans (the same basic outfit he has preferred onstage for as long as most can remember), the fit and muscular 68-year-old singer and guitarist proceeded to blaze through an energetic and intense set of songs that spanned his illustrious career.
Armed only with a single acoustic guitar and a vocal mic, the English-born Thompson — who in recent years has been known to tour with an electric band as well, and in fact appeared a few years back at the Savannah Music Fest with that lineup — delivered nothing less than a polished, self-assured cache of idiosyncratic tunes steeped in the history and mystery of British and Celtic folk music, yet filtered through American R&B, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and the early days of (real) punk rock.
Though many of his older songs (such as “Walking on a Wire” and “Dimming of the Day,” which were originally written with his former wife and bandmate Linda’s vocals in mind) are now performed in lower keys and different arrangements befitting not only his own vocal range, but also the musical limitations inherent in utilizing only an acoustic guitar (as opposed to an entire backing band), they were no less powerful for these changes.
Thompson’s famously heroic guitar skills were on display from the very first notes of this pleasantly loud solo show, and at times he incorporated subtle sonic effects on his acoustic instrument that enhanced his percussive attack. In the hands of an artist like Thompson (abetted by his top-notch sound engineer), an acoustic guitar through a massive P.A. system can shift seemingly effortlessly from a wind chime to a machine gun and back again in the course of a single song. The whisper-quiet and attentive crowd of mostly older listeners seemed to be generally familiar with Thompson’s back catalogue, and offered enthusiastic applause for even the more obscure songs he dusted off during his brisk set.
Standout selections included the lyrically dense rave-up “Valerie” (which came off like a classic slice of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds), the Amsterdam travelogue “Beatnik Walking,” “Uninhabited Man” (from the “Mock Tudor” LP), an almost unbearably intense take on his former Fairport Convention collaborator (the late) Sandy Denny’s folk gem “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” and the most edgy and defiant version I have yet heard of his greatest-hit-that-never-was, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which the songwriter introduced as a “love triangle song about a boy, a girl and a sacred object.”
“Dry My Tears and Move On,” (also from 1999’s “Mock Tudor”) was given a resplendent, minimalist reading that rang out as a deeply Anglicized take on southern soul music. Thompson’s skeletal guitar line and bluntly direct lyrics served as little more than a framework for the song, which emerged as a kissing cousin to “Blue Moon” in its open, haunting simplicity. He also offered up a brisk, stripped-down arrangement of his only major chart hit. 1974’s “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight,” which recently went to near the top of the British pop charts after Thompson released this new, acoustic rendition.
But, for me, at least, the highlights of his performance were the back-to-back airings of “Wall of Death” (originally from 1982’s amazing “Shoot Out the Lights” LP jointly credited to he and his former wife Linda) and “I Misunderstood” (from 1991’s “Rumour and Sigh” LP).
“Wall of Death” was almost as jaunty as its well-known studio recording, yet somehow more subdued. Its key lowered, in deference perhaps to Thompson’s age and diminishing ability to hit the high vocal notes he once could, it remained just as potent a declaration of a lust for life, and brought me to tears with its simple, heartfelt and masterfully composed sense of purpose.
“I Misunderstood,” on the other hand, was rendered in a far darker and more remorseful tone than I recalled its studio-recorded incarnation. Filled to the brim with heartbreak and misery, this sorrowful tale of a love affair that has reached the end of its run may just qualify for the most underappreciated tune in Thompson’s estimable canon. Though it has been a personal favorite of mine for decades, even I did not fully comprehend the evocative power on display within its bones until I witnessed its composer deliver it alone on a darkened stage to a respectful and attentive crowd. I can only imagine he is aware of the caliber of that tune, and placed it at the close of the show out of respect for its heft.
After the second standing ovation of the afternoon, Thompson returned to the stage for a short, one-song encore before leaving the stage with a good-natured wave to the audience. There is only one Richard Thompson. He is a contemporary musical treasure with an almost regal air of plucky insouciance about him. How wonderful to be able to spend an hour or so in his presence and be charmed by his skills in the midst of such a tumultuous and dispiriting time in history.