By STEVEN STOCK
ALBANY — British folk-rocker Richard Thompson has been a frequent visitor to the Egg in recent years, but until last Friday he’d never brought a 14-piece string orchestra with him. A near-capacity crowd at the Swyer Theatre was privileged to catch the second night of a two-city tour. It seemed as if Thompson, The Next Festival of Emerging Artists and conductor Peter Askim must’ve worked out any kinks the previous night at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, because their performance here was flawless.
The entire first set was devoted to a song cycle called “KIA (Killed in Action),” composed by Thompson at the behest of the WWI Centenary Arts Commission for 14-18Now! Thompson researched the piece at the Imperial War Museum, using verbatim extracts from letters, diaries and interviews to serve as lyrics “with little attempt to make them rhyme or turn them into ‘art.’”
As you might expect, it made for harrowing listening. Individual songs dealt with the miseries of half-flooded trenches, the horrors of enduring a gas attack, and the ubiquity of rats on the front lines. Thompson was careful not to over-emote, rather allowing the gravity of the soldiers’ words to speak for themselves. His musical score was first-rate, with basses, cellos, violas and violins alternately soaring above and then intertwining with his acoustic guitar.
“We’ll get happy in the second half,” Thompson had promised before quickly adding a qualifying “ish.” The second set boasted several songs with the orchestra, a little taste of Richard solo (“they’re all doing drugs for a couple minutes,” said Richard of the missing orchestra) and then a closing romp with strings through the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
“Word Unspoken Sight Unseen” was Thompson’s take on the practice of procuring mail-order brides from Russia. As is so often the case, his droll wordplay draws the unsuspecting listener close, expecting frivolity, only to be lacerated by the empathy of Thompson’s lyrics. A couple more character sketches followed, “Broken Doll” and the macabre one-two punch of “Auldie Riggs” and “Auldie Riggs’ Dance,” with the string orchestra building to a formidable crescendo on the latter while Thompson gleefully recounted Auldie’s evil deeds.
Next it was back to the trenches for “The Woods of Darney” followed by a companion track from 1996’s “You? Me? Us?, “ “Razor Dance” and then the rarely-heard “Sorrows to the Sea.” Critics as a rule tend to worship Thompson so I’m not sure where he found the zeal to lampoon them, but he certainly did so effectively with the hilarious “Clive Smythe.”
A beautiful rendition of “Shenandoah” (adapted from Thompson’s “1000 Years of Popular Music”) was followed by the evening’s highlight. “Out of Time” is one of the classic Jagger/Richards misogynistic putdowns, although as Thompson pointed out the largely-forgotten Chris Farlowe actually recorded the hit version. Thompson sang this nugget with gusto and the orchestra matched him note-for-note, clearly enjoying the swelling arrangement.
“The Great Valerio,” from 1974’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” was the lone selection from Thompson’s six albums (excluding compilations) with then-wife Linda, and it definitely benefited from the new drama-laden string arrangement.
Thompson of course frequently performs unaccompanied, and once the orchestra filed offstage he treated us to a dazzling version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” perhaps his best-loved song, featuring some improbably fast fretwork. Still solo, Thompson rolled out one of his rare topical songs, an updated version of “Fergus Laing” from the deluxe version of his most recent album, 2015’s “Still.” Fergus Laing is actually Thompson’s alias for the presumptive Republican nominee – “I can’t mention his name because he’ll have me killed,” said Thompson. Audience laughed. “No, he really will!” said Thompson, deadpan.