British folk-rock icon Richard Thompson invariably spends a fair amount of his time onstage bemoaning the fact that he’s simply a cult artist — and much of the rest of that time playing winkingly to the fringes of said cult. Although his stage banter, as is generally the case, carries a hangdog resignation that’s reminiscent of a guitar-slinging Red Buttons, Thompson was clearly in his element before this attentive house.
Just two dates into a tour in support of his just-released Spin Art album, “The Old Kit Bag,” Thompson evinced surprisingly little rust and more than enough willingness to depart from the recorded versions of songs like “Gethsemane” and “She Said It Was Destiny.” More to the point, his audience seemed as eager to partake of the new offerings as to sip at old favorites.
When accompanied by a full band, as is the case on most dates on his current tour, Thompson makes a more concerted effort to show off his virtuosic guitar playing, bending and slurring notes, zigzagging across chord progressions and injecting standard folk constructions with bits of West Coast jazz and rockabilly.
The former element was most in evidence on the fluid “I’ve Got No Right to Have it All,” a sort of ascetic vow that was echoed in “Outside of the Inside,” in which Thompson wrapped traditional Muslim philosophy — and his outrage over fundamentalism — in delicate layers of ornate melody.
When he shakes off his tendencies toward the overly maudlin — the limpid “Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne” was mired in the worst elements of traditional English music hall sentiment — Thompson is a more than agreeable balladeer. But he and his band, particularly double-bassist Rory MacFarlane, struck more deeply when chugging along in their minimally rarefied version of a pub-rock groove.
Richard Thompson plays the House of Blues in Los Angeles on May 16.