Music’s most affable fatalist, (very) British guitar god Richard Thompson weather-vaned from brief bursts of happy to heartbreak and back Wednesday at The Egg, with detours into revenge.
In the nearly packed (smaller) Swyer Theatre — he fills the Hart Theatre when he brings a band — Thompson drove straight for the ditch with the despairing “I Misunderstood.” He spiced the buttery glide of his baritone in a short falsetto burst that echoed in the coda. Pin-drop awe became a fans’ roar he eyed with wry suspicion, leading perfectly into the noir nightmare “The Ghost of You Walks.”
Mock apologizing for these “miserable songs,” he intro’ed the driving “Valerie” as fast and depressing — “they said it couldn’t be done” — then hit the night’s first I-can’t-believe-it solo, waving off the ovation: “That was nothing.” Three songs in, his fingers had hit full flight, throbbing bass-lines in down-strokes with flat- or thumb-pick while finger-picking upward to etch the melody, like lacy calligraphy in a suicide note. Next: revenge — “Crocodile Tears” in deceptively serene waltz-time, then the rapturous, poignant “Beeswing,” his saddest, sweetest lost-love lament. He sang at his best here, stretching vowels to double-wide, cracking in anguish.
Insightful, eloquent, nothing felt monochrome; ambivalence reigned. The jaunty, nostalgic “Walking the Long Miles Home” also mourned a break-up, “I Crawl Back” mid-set measured loss with resilience, as did the late, Nietzsche-ian “My Enemy,” mixing pain with power. A big roar saluted his blazing solo in “Crawl”; Thompson said, “Amazing! You finally noticed!”
For some, the show peaked mid-set with a reverent take on Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” with a better guitar solo than he played in the Fairport Convention original, and his own armed robbery/motorcycle/doomed romance saga “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” pulsing to big applause.
But Thompson kept twisting the throttle. Motorcycles roared back in the circus saga “Wall of Death,” Zara Phillips emerging, in a sparkly dress she might have snaffled from a gypsy caravan clothesline, to sing harmony. Thompson turned to fresh tunes from “13 Rivers” only late in his 100-minute set, Phillips helping in “The Storm Won’t Come,” a hard slog through death and desolation, and “The Rattle Within,” both spiky, driving rockers that bookended the older “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road” that thematically echoed “Beeswing.”
He encored alone in the fervent “Dimming of the Day” and the slow waltz “From Galway to Graceland.” Phillips returned in the upbeat “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.”
Then “When the Saints Rise Out of their Graves,” emotional polar opposite of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” drenched the place in epic gloom, powerfully capping a show ranking near the top among 20-plus I’ve seen by this matchless master.