Crass commercialism was the reason the grand poobah of British folk music gave for his sold-out appearance Tuesday just a few months removed from a well-received gig at the Getty. The pitch now is a new “Best of” culled from his half-dozen Capitol Records, a catalog that includes the brilliant “You? Me? Us?,” much of it a spotlight on the darkest and deepest reaches of the human soul.
Thompson works over separation and remorse like few others, surprisingly un-British in his honesty and nakedness. Remarkably strong are his protagonists, their emotional resilience yields untreatable wounds and yet they soldier on for another bout of heartache. It can be pretty disturbing stuff, especially when the brightest tune of the evening is “I Feel So Good,” in which the reason for the title is the ensuing line: “I’m gonna break somebody’s heart tonight.”
The solo treatment enhanced a number of tunes, turning “I Misunderstood” (“Thought she was saying good luck, she was saying goodbye”) into the mournful heartbreaker that the record only hints at. The timbral changes in “The Ghost of You” — a bright guitar flourish concluded each emotionally wrought couplet — enhanced the dichotomy Thompson strikes in pairing a morose lyric with a spry melody. On “Persuasion,” the singular nature of his throaty baritone was enhanced by the presence of his daughter Camelia, who echoed the great work Richard did with ex-wife Linda in the 1970s. (A “Best of” from their collaborations was issued last year by Island).
Show was typical Thompson, full of between-song humor and a chronicle of the times he has performed at the venue starting back in 1971 when he was with Fairport Convention. He also tossed in one throwaway tune, a humorous ode to Pat Metheny’s diatribe on the Web against Kenny G.
More typical was the abundance of spectacular displays of guitar artistry. The blues guitarist Rev. Gary Davis used to refer to his instrument as a piano around his neck and few artists take this more to heart than Thompson who orchestrates nearly every tune for a host of instrumental voices that come from his single guitar, often playing melody, rhythm and bass line, and at one point even adding a droning sound that gave the piece a hint of symphonic sweetness.