Britain's best kept rock secret

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The Independent Culture

Richard Thompson, Colston Hall, Bristol

Richard Thompson, Colston Hall, Bristol

It might be ironic but it's true: the greatest rocker we've got left is a 49-year-old folkie from Fairport Convention. With fire in his belly and a Fender Strat hanging on his shoulder, Richard Thompson still sounds angry as hell. He's Greater London's very own Gene Vincent, spitting out words like a string of punk-era gob, with sibilant syllables full of vitriol, malice and forethought. The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music describes him as Britain's best kept secret. It's certainly the case at his own record company. When I ring up EMI for tickets, no one appears to have heard of him.

While other veteran rockers of comparable vintage settle into middle-of-the-road senescence or premature senility, Thompson gets rawer all the time. His latest album, Mock Tudor, opens with a full-tilt boogie that sounds as if it came out of Sun Records in Memphis circa 1955. The songs have bite, spite and hooks aplenty, and if Oasis ever decide to move on from the Beatles, they should give them a listen.

However, for such a blistering blend of rock and blues (don't even think about folk any more), the tub-thumping drumming does present a bit of a problem. Imagine: Thompson's in LA, yet he still ships in fellow former Fairporter Dave Mattacks from England. But past ties are clearly important for Thompson. Mock Tudor includes dedications to Nick Drake and Sandy Denny (both dead for nearly a quarter of a century), and old folk-rock comrade Danny Thompson was imported to play bass. Richard Thompson may have left Fairport Convention in 1971, but the milieu has marked him for life.

For the gig, Danny Thompson was present and correct, thumping away on the old stand-up bass like some long lost rockabilly legend, but Mattacks had been replaced by a funky young Texan, Michael Jerome. His mix of primal oomph and subtle swing gave the band exactly what the album lacked. Thompson's son Teddy played guitar and sang back-up vocals, along with Pete Zorn, who seemed to play the entire contents of a well-stocked musical instrument shop, all astonishingly well.

But Thompson was the centre of attention. On the album's "Hard On Me" - yet another surgical dissection of a failed relationship - he played an extended guitar solo of such malevolent power that it defied belief. Like Jimi Hendrix or Zuma-era Neil Young (who's a fan, and clearly owes as much to Thompson as Thompson does to him), it sounded like he wasn't playing the strings but the electric current itself, bending the elemental surge of pure energy into whatever shape he desired. When he finished, there was an audible gasp from the audience. You could imagine the many guitar players among them going home to smash their beloved instruments against the wall.

The band played the album, and then a few oldies: "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" as a boogie shuffle; "Tear-Stained Letter" done Balkan-style; "Al Bowly's in Heaven" given a hot Club de Paris feel. Thompson explained that the beautiful ballad "Persuasion" was originally written as the theme for an Australian movie. "It was a romantic comedy," he said. "Can't think why they asked me." Oh, how we laughed. His reputation as a chronicler of - as Mayakovsky's last poem before his suicide put it - love dashed against the rocks, is justified. But Thompson proved anything but maudlin.

Thompson has been so extraordinarily good for so long that seeing him now is quite humbling. Who else is left who can make you feel that they really mean what they do, and with so much passion and so much craft? You can cancel David Bowie's knighthood for starters. Richard Thompson is the last real rocker on the block.

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