Richard Thompson knows he’s a cult artist: Early in his appearance at the El Rey, the British folk-rocker looked into the partisan crowd and archly asked, “Is there anyone here who is not on the guest list?”
Thompson may be preaching to the converted, but that didn’t keep him from delivering the goods: a passionate, nearly two-hour performance that drew from his entire career, and acknowledged St. Patrick’s Day with a gentle, sweet rendition of “Danny Boy” accompanied by singer Judith Owen.
His set didn’t vary much from that in his Roxy show last June, but Thompson and his potent backing trio managed to keep the music fresh, rearranging familiar tunes and allowing room for solos from standup bassist Danny Thompson and utility man Pete Zorn.
Thompson’s guitar-playing was, as usual, flawless, barbed knots of notes that never fail to draw blood, expanding songs such as “Hard on Me” and “Crawl Back” into instrumental tours de force. Thompson makes it look so effortless, tossing off his plangent, precise solos with an ease that belies their fierce emotional power. Unfortunately, that makes it easier for music fans to overlook Thompson’s talents.
And Thompson’s talents as a songwriter are just as imposing as his guitar; he’s able to convey the rush of early romance and the bitter recriminations when it turns sour.
The intelligence of Thompson’s work turns his shows into something closer to a jazz or blues concert than to what currently passes for rock ‘n’ roll — and that may be, ultimately, what limits his appeal. In other words, it’s just possible that Thompson is too good for his own good.