One of the eternal puzzles of the rock era is why the great British songwriter, guitarist and performer Richard Thompson has never achieved superstar status. At the recently refurbished London Roundhouse, Thompson and his versatile three-piece band played a muscular set inevitably big on material from his compelling recent album, “Sweet Warrior,” supported with cult classics from a back catalogue that is as eclectic as it entertaining.
Evening kicked off at a breakneck space with, appropriately enough, the opening song from “Sweet Warrior,” “Needle and Thread.” But it was a version of that album’s song inspired by the war in Iraq, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” seen from the perspective of an ordinary solider, that demonstrated Thompson’s abilities as a wry observer of life on the edge have lost none of their power over a 40-year plus career.
Musically his guitar work was scintillating as he executed the kind of largely cliche-free note play that other guitar-heroes envy. Remarkably, his acoustic playing was, arguably, even more effective as Thompson’s band left the stage for a heartfelt rendition of the wistful “I Still Dream,” Sandy Denny’s exquisite “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” (Denny was a Fairport Convention band mate) and the picaresque biker saga “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” always a Thompson show stopper.
Another standout was “Al Bowley’s In Heaven,” inspired by 1940s swing workouts and notable for some nicely understated soprano sax figures from multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn. Throughout, on assorted saxophones, flutes, mandolin and acoustic rhythm guitar, Zorn’s contribution was vital.
The only quibble was the set list: Too many of the rockers sounded similar and lacked the melodic lift of his ballads.
Thompson finished in September a round of U.S. dates in support of “Sweet Warrior.” After six dates in the U.K., he will return to the U.S. in December for some West Coast gigs, including three all-request shows in Saratoga, Calif. In January and early February, Thompson will resume his “1,000 Years of Popular Song” shows, including a stop at New York’s Nokia Theater on Jan. 31.