REVIEW: Richard Thompson is a master of fine dissonance

Pamela Dunlap-shohl

Singer, songwriter and master guitarist Richard Thompson gave Anchorage fans the show they’d been wanting for years. Mike McCormick of Whistling Swan persisted in convincing Thompson to come to Alaska, and the wait was worth the years that took. Saturday night’s performance was the best of three I’ve seen Thompson give, and it even topped the albums and videos that I’ve seen and listened for the past 30 years.

A key component of Thompson’s storytelling is his impeccable use of dissonance. The musical dissonance underscores the verses about life’s dissonances. What makes it work is his perfect intonation; it would fall flat if he didn’t sing and play in tune.

Most often, use of dissonance is found in jazz of the highest caliber. It’s what gives music its zing, surprise and, yes, even momentary discomfort, not unlike foods that include spicy hot, bitter and sour accents.

Thompson employed this risky musical tool on his version of the 1940s song “Dog Eat Dog in Denmark (Hamlet)” by Frank Loesser. Thompson not only delivered the four-verse story of Hamlet convincingly in jive style, but he wowed the audience with clustered tones zooming down the guitar fret and while bending two strings simultaneously. He sang scat at the same time he played counter-melodies on the guitar. Many audience members could be seen leaning forward appearing to watch every new and astounding combination of fingering and picking.

The British folk-rock musician, a former member of the groundbreaking ’60s band Fairport Convention, writes music that expands well beyond the common folk style of AA, BB, stanzas and chorus. His melodies, inner voices and complex bass lines advance the story along a path more linear than circular. His musical themes are enriched by unusual chord progressions, challenging melodic intervals and modulating key signatures.

Thompson covered many of his old standards. He played many favorites called out by the audience, including “Persuasion,” “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Pharaoh” and “Crawl Back.” Though they were old standbys, the sound was fresh and invigorated by Thompson’s addition of a looping machine. It could have become overused and gimmicky in other hands, but true to form,Thompson used it with his usual restrained-but-with-intensity style.

It’s a style some might already be familiar with even if they don’t realize it -- Thompson wrote and played the guitar music for the soundtrack of “Grizzly Man” by Werner Herzog.

Starting the evening by saying he was jet-lagged, Thompson didn’t show it but gave a vigorous performance for a straight two hours without faltering. The audience rewarded him with three standing ovations, trying to convince him that he, at the very least, should “Crawl Back” to Anchorage before another 30 years go by.

ADDENDUM: I must give a shout-out to Simon Tassano at the sound controls. The concert would not have been nearly as pleasurable without him. The articulation of the guitar notes was very clear, and Thompson’s voice and vibrato were the most full I’ve ever heard. Combined with the fabulous acoustics of the Discovery Theater in the Atwood Concert Hall, the unsung sound technician made the concert the best it could possibly be.

Pamela Dunlap-Shohl is a designer at the Anchorage Daily News. Raised in a family of folk and classical musicians, she studied classical piano and then violin through college. Now a member of the Irish/Americana band Whiskey Jacks, she sings, plays electric fiddle and hopes to soon add her vertical viola to the mix.

Pamela Dunlap-Shohl