Richard Thompson in The Ulster Hall, Belfast

Richard Thompson makes a welcome return to Belfast. One year on from his last performance, he plays a pared-back set of classics to a packed Ulster Hall.

Richard Thompson

Ulster Hall, Belfast

Oscillating between furious brilliance and quiet excellence, Richard Thompson treated the Ulster Hall audience to a delightful pared-back visit of his exalted canon of work, and even with two encores had the crowd begging for more.

Almost a year ago exactly, Thompson had played a scintillating set in The Belfast Empire with a full band, that had punters putting it as their gig of the year. A highlight of that show was an acoustic version of the gorgeous Beeswing.

Oh she was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing. So fine a breath might blow her away. She was a lost child, oh she was running wild. She said “As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay, And you wouldn’t want me any other way.

As superb as that gig was, many left wishing he had played some more solo songs. Well, tonight, that’s exactly what the crowd got, and it was a sheer delight. Displaying the revered guitar wizardry that has people trying to make sure he only has five fingers on each hand, the solos rattled off at a rate during The Storm Won’t Come, and The Rattle Within. The vast hall reverberating to the sound of his six strings, as he provided his own rhythm section for his lead runs. His rich nuanced baritone, as strong as ever.

It was a night of light and shade. Thompson has written and played on two of the most beautiful songs in any genre, Dimming of the Day, and The Sandy Denny penned Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Both performed immaculately and leaving many a teary eye in the crowd. Thompson as self-effacing as always, stating he could never match Sandy’s original, and referring us to catch the gorgeous original on YouTube.

Of his last five albums, three have been acoustic re-imaginings of his work. Not that there was anything wrong first time around! But stripped to their essence of voice and guitar, his virtuosity on the fretboard shines through. But perhaps more so, we are reminded by how brilliant the songs are, and how perhaps his prowess on the guitar, has overshadowed his songwriting. Thompson’s lyrics, remain a thing of great jaundiced beauty, providing a welcome antidote to the prevalent saccharine view of love from so much current music, Crocodile Tears, and I Feel So Good, I’m gonna Break Somebody’s Heart Tonight, being two of his finest examples.

“Sometimes I crack myself up” quips the bard, as the audience laughs at caustic couplets. Between songs, he was the perfect host, convivial and funny, even coping with the ubiquitous incomprehensible Belfast heckler, in a succinct and compassionate manner.

Delving into his history from his Fairport days to his last album, 13 Rivers, the dazzling fretboard skills were almost being taken for granted, such was their frequent fluidity. Almost! Hard to credit this man turned seventy in April. Years and fingers! A lot of counting going on tonight!

Allegedly devoid of hits, his career is studded with solid classics. The always engagingly pretty Persuasion, I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, and Richard’s English take on the Bonnie and Clyde tale, and fan favorite, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

Oh says James to Red Molly, “Here’s a ring for your right hand. But I’ll tell you in earnest, I’m a dangerous man. For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen, I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine and now I’m twenty-one, I might make twenty-two, and I don’t mind dying but for the love of you”.

I always hope maybe Richard will one day provide another ending to the tale, but sadly James is doomed to leave his machine to his love. Amazing the way, a song can get into the psyche? I digress! The heartbreaking Woods of Darney, from the somewhat maligned You? Me? Us? album, is another highlight, on a night of such high quality and consistency, such a thing as a highlight, might be tautologies.

Richard Thompson will be feted later this year at the Royal Albert Hall, by many of his peers and admirers, and rightly so! The man is a genius and a joy to behold. Continuing to reinvent, and beguile listeners and fans, the only thing predictable about Richard Thompson is just how damn good he always is!