Over the past year, Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson, buddies from way back, have toured a “Loud and Rich” show with each of them doing their own acoustic sets and getting together for a few duets as well (including a show in their adopted home town of Los Angeles on November 13th of last year). Individually, they’ve also appeared often at the Largo club, both in its original, cozy and smaller quarters on Fairfax Avenue and in the new digs at the decrepit Coronet Theater on La Cienega Blvd. (which is still relatively intimate, accomodating less than 300 people, in an auditorium of mostly broken, stained seats for which I have not yet developed any affection).
On Feb. 10, 2010 Loudon played Largo solo, fresh from his first Grammy win (for his Charlie Poole project High Wide & Handsome) and brought out half a dozen new songs from his upcoming “New Depression” project. Two nights later RT came into Largo with a full band, premiering a dozen new tunes from an album he’s about to record. It was a chance to see two masters, who have long ago passed the point of needing to prove anything, give evidence that they are still at the top of their game after a combined 85 years of songwriting.
Loudon started with “The Grammy Song” from his 1983 album Fame and Wealth, and sprinkled new material around a strong set of songs about his family (“Rufus Is a Tit Man” and “Surviving Twin” among them). Of the new material, “In C” is the most astonishing. Played on piano, it employs the trick of talking about itself (in the manner of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for instance), with Loudon’s lyrics referring to the rarity of his writing a song on piano, the use of certain key structures for emotional effects, and how he uses music as both a way to process his life experience and hide from it. Given that his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle had passed away only a few weeks before, it was shocking to me to hear the song explicitly apportion blame to both himself and her for the collapse of their marriage and the damage to their children. Loudon (as in “Mr. Guilty” which he also performed) has a way of taking responsibility for his mistakes and also slyly suggesting that maybe the other party is scapegoating him a bit too much, and “In C” is a sad struggle with the conundrum.
As to the songs acknowledging the current financial crisis, one was a jokey blues about economist Paul Krugman, another a wry, heartbreaking tale of an unhappily married couple who must stay together because they can’t sell their house, and a third assured the listener that despite midnight insomnia brought on by money woes, “it’s not the end of the world, it’s just the middle of the night.”
Richard Thompson’s next album sounds like it’ll be better than his last Sweet Warrior, with several musical links to his seventies Hand of Kindness period. He began with his own new economic crisis tune “Money Shuffle,” in which a Wall Street fatcat brags “my bonus is obscene.” “Haul Me Up,” “Next Time” and “Big Sun” all contained that unique combination of despair and optimism that Thompson creates, with lots of concrete images (“Big Sun” is imagined from a spot on Waterloo Bridge), fine turns of phrase and melodic invention. “A Brother Slips Away” is a straightforward, painfully honest requiem for the recent passing of three of his friends, and “Here Comes Geordie,” when I could catch the words, seemed a satire on a certain kind of phony.
A slow tune called “Burning Man” evoked the desert feel of that yearly festival in the Nevada desert (but based on the lyrics, I’d say it was not written from any firsthand knowledge of the event). The two most impressive new songs were the lively “Demons in Dancing Shoes,” evoking the milieu of the Kray twins’ East London stomping grounds with a rollicking melody (half Chuck Berry and half Scottish reel, making it all RT), and “Sidney Wells,” with lyrics about a serial killer and a melody, chords and drive that might have been influenced by The Grateful Dead’s “That’s It for the Other One.”
To begin his second set, Thompson unfurled “Time Will Show the Wiser,” the Emitt Rhodes song which led off the first Fairport Convention album in 1968, afterwards revealing that next week he’s playing on an Emitt Rhodes recording session (incredible news, given that Rhodes’ last release was a few decades ago!). A version of “Tear Stained Letter,” featuring the “player of everything” Pete Zorn, who has rejoined RT’s band once again, included a massively gnarly guitar solo, and “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” was suitably ominous. The evening ended with RT’s daughter Camilla and son Teddy coming on stage to duet with dad, and then help out on backing vocals for “I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight.” Richard Thompson’s got plenty of past glories, but based on this first public unveiling of new songs, he’s got future classics waiting in the wings.