After folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson, onstage at his sold-out show Wednesday night at the Roxy, announced that he was going to concentrate on new material, he joked that his audience’s reaction couldn’t have been any blanker had he announced he was performing “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” Self-deprecating cheek aside, Thompson thoroughly assuaged any skepticism that might have existed in the crowd and quite likely ensured a number of first-day sales of his upcoming CD by the time he concluded his two-hour set (including a 20-minute encore).
Thompson, a venerable, crafty songwriter who for 30 years has maintained fan base that falls in the “diminutive but loyal” category, has maintained an admirable level of excellence in his recorded output. His most recent efforts have been somewhat melodically anemic, but “Mock Tudor” (Capitol), due Aug. 24, signifies a heartening return to form.
Touted as a look back at Thompson’s life in London from the ’60s to the ’80s, the new work features only a couple of tunes that suggest any real reminiscing. “Uninhabited Man” elliptically concerns fallen fellow musicians (two singers whom Thompson had dated died in accidents in the ’70s). “Sights of Sounds of London Town,” destined to be a future fan favorite, offers a portrait of a gallery of luckless rogues; introducing the song Wednesday, Thompson drolly announced that it was “sponsored by the London Tourist Authority.”
Instead, “Mock Tudor” has Thompson doing what he does best — harsh, alternately cynical and heartbreaking reflections on love and life. Producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who have worked with Beck, the Foo Fighters and Elliott Smith, have punched up Thompson’s sound without forcing a strained, more “contemporary” sensibility upon him, and the result is perhaps his most consistently satisfying effort since 1991’s “Rumor and Sigh.”
Thompson’s concert got off to a rocky start, however, when his band took the stage but drummer Michael Jerome was nowhere to be found. Initially nonplused, Thompson quickly settled into a brief acoustic set. He dueted with his son Teddy (a vocalist as expressive as his pop, with a contract of his own with Virgin) on “Persuasion,” a song Thompson collaborated on with Tim and Neil Finn (whom Thompson, taking a shot at his employers, referred to as “former Capitol recording artists”).
Once Jerome surfaced, the group exploded into “Mock Tudor’s” opening number, “Cooksferry Queen.” The ensemble immediately worked up a head of steam — the rhythm section of Jerome and Thompson’s brother Danny, on stand-up bass, propelled the music with muscle and authority all evening — and the show’s false start was quickly forgotten. In all, nine songs from the upcoming album were featured, with Thompson offering particularly impassioned performances and incendiary guitar solos in new numbers “Two-Faced Love” and “Hard on Me.”
Older material was eventually incorporated into the set. The ballad “Jennie” was re-imagined into something more brawny yet still wistfully evocative; “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” evinced even more of a jazz flavor, benefiting from superb soloing from Danny Thompson and versatile instrumentalist Pete Zorn on clarinet. “She Twists the Knife Again” was given a typically blistering reading, but the biggest crowd-pleaser was “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” in which Thompson proved he didn’t need to solo on electric guitar to be electrifying.
Thompson largely eschewed material from his inspired years with ex-wife Linda (it must be interesting psycho-drama for Teddy to perform those numbers with his mom absent). Only “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” made it into the set before the encore, but the evening did conclude with the one-two punch of “Wall of Death” and “A Man in Need.”
Even Thompson’s way of bidding his audience good night was entertaining: “The frisky tomcat of fate has come upon the cruel scalpel of time.”