This previously unreleased concert album rocks amidst the throes of the British guitar titan’s most transitional period
Was there really a time when Richard Thompson was still struggling to establish himself as a solo artist? Yes. Was there a time when he wasn’t a preternaturally commanding solo artist? Seemingly not.
The double live album Across a Crowded Room – Live at Barrymore’s 1985 documents an electrifying Ottawa performance from a period when the world’s greatest living guitar stylist — not to mention one of the finest songwriters the 20th century ever spat out — was still a relatively unknown quantity without his erstwhile musical and matrimonial partner Linda, at least outside his native England. There was an abortive first stab at a solo career represented by 1972’s commercial disaster Henry the Human Fly, but 1985’s Across a Crowded Room was only Thompson’s second post-duo album. And Thompson himself has stated that it wasn’t until he partnered with Capitol Records a few years later that his tours stopped hemorrhaging currency.
But even the most cursory of listens quickly reveals that Thompson’s touring band for the shows supporting Across a Crowded Room was a crack outfit capable of deftly supporting the boss man’s superlative material and mind-melting guitar work. Some of his old Fairport convention buddies pitched in on the album but were apparently unavailable for touring. Instead, another U.K. folk-rock stalwart, Gerry Conway of Pentangle and Fotheringay (and later Fairport) took the drum stool. Rory McFarlane stepped in on bass. But possibly the most important additions to the band were singer/guitarists Clive Gregson and Christine Collister.
Gregson had recently disbanded his British power-pop band, Any Trouble; he and Collister were just about to launch themselves as a duo more than a little influenced by Richard and Linda. When they lent their well honed harmonies to Thompson’s tour, they gave him arguably the finest vocal blend he’s ever achieved onstage, giving the songs an extra push over the top.
Not that any band where Richard Thompson has a guitar in hand needs any extra assistance. Though his reputation as a guitar hero would grow even greater in the years to come, Thompson was already worshiped as a six-string superhero by his hardy cult following by this point. And he approaches his instrument with the requisite amount of magic here. “Shoot out the Lights,” which would become probably his most famous guitar showcase, was still a relative youngster in his repertoire at the time, but Thompson brings as much danger, mystery, and mastery to it here as ever. With his instrument alternately rattling, roaring, murmuring, and howling, he leaps far outside the convention language of the guitar (or any other instrument, for that matter) to bring the gloriously creepy, foreboding tune to its climax.
Thompson brought the bulk of his new album onstage, which is an almost entirely positive development, since songs like the bittersweet “When the Spell is Broken,” the feverish “Fire in the Engine Room,” and the explosive “She Twists the Knife Again” are all in the top tier of his work. And while audiences in ’85 were forced to sit through the turgid, endless (and thankfully anomalous) “Love in a Faithless Country,” contemporary listeners can simply skip to the next track.
VIDEO: Richard Thompson “When The Spell Is Broken”
Besides all of the aforementioned plus sharpshooting versions of Richard & Linda staples like “Wall of Death,” “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” and “Withered and Died,” the Barrymore’s set includes a trio of tunes never heard on any other official RT release that will catch the fancy of Thompson trainspotters (and you’d best believe he’s got his fair share of those in his audience).
Gregson and Collister each take a turn up front, the former singing “Summer Rain” from his contemporaneous solo debut album, Strange Persuasions and the latter delivering “Warm Love Gone Cold,” a song she recorded for a BBC TV adaption of Fay Weldon’s novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. But if hearing Thompson accompany somebody else doesn’t spark your plugs, the closing track undoubtedly will. Things end with a balls-out rockabilly rave-up on another tune unique to the Thompson catalog, a riotous cover of “Skull and Cross Bones” by little known ’50s rockabilly singer Sparkle Moore, serving as a reminder that in his impressionable years, the king of British folk rock spent his fair share of time soaking up American rock ‘n’ roll.
VIDEO: Richard Thompson performs “Shoot Out The Lights” from Across A Crowded Room Live