I schlepped through two hours of rush hour traffic last night to drive down to Saratoga and hear Richard Thompson play at the rustic, remote Villa Montalvo, a mansion in the Santa Cruz mountains converted into an arts center. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been almost ten years since I interviewed Thompson for the then new-born Salon; it’s almost as hard to believe that, this far into a career that stretches back to the late ’60s, he has continued to grow as a musician and songwriter.
Last night, he mixed up timeless, heartache-filled classics like “Genesis Hall,” “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” and “The Great Valerio” with newer material split between boisterous upbeat love-songs (“Cooksferry Queen,” “Bathsheba Smiles”) and wry, punning novelties like a ditty in praise of Alexander Graham Bell (“Edison, he was a thief / And Tesla nuts beyond belief
/ But Alexander was a gent / So philanthropic, so well meant”).
One moment, he was playfully putting the lie to the old Dorothy Parkerism that “Guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” with “I’ve Got the Hots for the Smarts,” a jazzy ode to the turn-on of intellectual dames (“I like a girl in satin / who talks dirty in Latin”). Then he turned around to look at the realm of the intellect from the perspective of a Taliban-style fundamentalist, who, in his post-9/11 portrait, “Outside of the Inside,” dismisses the entire record of human civilization: “Shakespeare, Isaac Newton / Small ideas for little boys / Adding to the senseless chatter / Adding to the background noise.”
At this stage of his musicianship, Thompson is entirely capable of impersonating an entire rock ensemble using one acoustic guitar; bass line, rhythm, melody and solo all somehow emerge from a single pair of hands playing a single instrument. His show is a remarkable thing, yet the little house at Montalvo still had empty seats. If there are any more of those, as this three-night engagement continues tonight and tomorrow night, you might want to grab them.