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Richard Thompson - Live from Austin, TX Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
format:    16-bit CD/Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD
performance:    8
sound:    9
released:    2005
label:    New West Records
reviewer:    K L Poore

ImageThere’s a strain of melancholy that settles over Richard Thompson’s music like a shadow, and he knows it. As he says in the liner notes for Live from Austin TX, “I am communicating with a certain number of people, and if my music is too dark, or in your face, for some … I’m glad.”

That may seem like an odd statement coming from someone who makes his living by communicating with as many people as he can reach, but then again most people don’t have the kind of playing, writing and singing skills that will allow them to be selective about their audience.

On one of my listens to the LFAT CD, my other half (actually three-quarters, if you consider that she carries most of our household’s personality) spontaneously volunteered that she had to be in a certain mood to listen to Richard Thompson. She looked me square in the eye and said, “Too melancholy.” Since I’d already written that very word in my notes, I knew I was on to something. It was also very clear that she knew why I love his music so much. “Too melancholy” was written below my picture in my high school yearbook.
Live from Austin TX puts Richard Thompson’s craft on full display and is alternately beautiful, biting and disconcerting. Anything else would be highly disappointing. Whether it’s an upbeat song like the opener “Cooksferry Queen” or a rumination on losing your soul, “Uninhabited Man,” his ability to shine a light onto the darkest of complex emotions is there, in the music and in his voice. It’s a sadness that you can reach out and touch, grab hold of, really. And it’s something you want to grab on to, because in a world oversaturated with phony love songs and idiotic superficial sex come-ons, it resonates like a hug or a slap. It’s in the guitar solos. Whether acoustic (“Al Bowlly’s in Heaven”) or electric(his classic “Shoot Out the Lights”), his choice of notes carries the song into the emotional outland that most don’t want to visit very often and probably do their best to avoid. It’s a place I don’t mind hanging around, which, I guess, places me squarely in the Richard Thompson camp for the acid-tongued and overly melancholy.

That’s not to say that everything about LFAT is entirely successful. He’s chosen two songs from 1994’s somewhat disappointing Mirror Blue and neither “Mingus Eyes” nor “Easy There, Steady Now” are even the best cut from that release. At his middling point (there is no worst for him) Thompson is better than almost every singer/songwriter/guitar slinger out there, but these songs, placed right in the middle of the set, perplexed me. He recaptured my attention with the beautiful “Persuasion” (which he wrote with Tim Finn), but it made me wonder if, since the 2001 tour he was on when this recording was made was basically touting the splendid Capitol Records retrospective Action Packed, he was obligated to include songs from each album.

Now here’s the surprise, and it comes from having the DVD version of the release (other than another lively 5.1 surround sound, and the false friend bite-and-bile closer “Put It There Pal” that’s not on the CD). With it you discover that Thompson’s insightful humor and disarming smile help Live from Austin TX take on a whole new perspective. It’s as if seeing him grin and toss off casual remarks such as, “Not many people bought that record, I’m glad you could all make it,” when a few people applaud at the announcement of “Mingus Eyes,” helps to disarm the heartache and emotional gravitas of the songs. It may not be necessary for those of us already in the club, but for those who don’t want to cross over into his melancholy world it might be just enough assurance to convince them to go ahead and make the journey ... yeah, they’ll return home after dark, but they’ll be safe, sound, and emotionally fit.

And in turn I reconsider his statement about “communicating with a certain number of people.” Like his songwriting, playing and singing, his natural charm shines like a beacon, and he may say he’s preaching to the choir, but he’s communicating with everyone. He knows that looking into the darkness isn’t the same as being there, it just helps you differentiate melancholy from the mundane.

New West’s Live from Austin TX series is for the most part spectacular. That being said, this is the only one of their releases I’ve heard so far that I would suggest you skip as a CD and lay down your cash for the DVD only. The CD sounds a little flat whereas on the DVD the room resonates, the instrument separation is well defined, and the overall mix much clearer. You can hear the thud and rumble of Danny Thompson’s upright bass and the snap in Michael Jerome’s snare drum. Richard Thompson’s acoustic guitar has much more bite and you can actually hear his electric go slightly out of tune in “Ghosts in the Wind.” For some strange reason the drums are periodically mixed into the rear speakers, and I sure wish I knew why. One floor tom “thomp” had me convinced a cantaloupe had fallen off the kitchen counter. If you’ve already purchased the CD and wonder why “Shoot Out the Lights” seems abbreviated, and sonically different than other versions, he breaks his high E string and carries on as best he can. If you have only purchased the CD go get the DVD. Now. I’ll wait.

Extra Features
Other than the aforementioned extra song and sterling 5.1 sound, there are no extra features. One could only hope.

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