Across a Crowded Room — Live at Barrymore’s 1985
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
There’s no explanation to why it has taken this superb, professionally recorded, full length Richard Thompson concert over three decades to make it to an audio medium. Originally released on laserdisc and VHS/Beta tape (look ‘em up on Wikipedia, kids), this double package captures one full 20-song, nearly two-hour gig on the tour for the titular 1985 Thompson album. An earlier single CD of the show left off five songs from the gig.
While Across a Crowded Room isn’t considered one of his best works, songs like the tension filled “When the Spell is Broken,” the spellbinding ballad “Love in a Faithless Country” and the harder-rocking “Fire in the Engine Room” are important to anyone’s Richard Thompson collection. He was still reeling from a contentious divorce from Linda Thompson at the time as titles of those songs and others such as “She Twists the Knife Again” (ouch) make clear. Of course Thompson isn’t known for cushy love ditties, but this is yet another example of how his witty, incisive wordplay, stunning guitar work and knack for catchy melodies makes even the edgiest lyrics often sing-along worthy.
Thompson always has enormously gifted backing musicians, but this band, which includes the singing/guitar playing duo of Christine Collister and Clive Gregson (they also had a clutch of excellent albums together) along with the great Gerry Conway on drums was one of his finest. Collister’s vocals in particular are beautiful and pointed as they substitute for Linda Thompson on reprises of tunes recorded with his ex-wife and revisited here. Gregson is a wonderful second guitarist even if “Summer Rain,” his solo moment, slows down the set’s momentum as does Collister’s eight minute impressive but snoozy “Warm Love Gone Cold.”
Thompson is searing throughout, whipping off his typically inventive guitar on six-string showcases like “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Wall of Death” and especially a spectacular, nearly nine minute, concert closing, pre-encore “Tear Stained Letter.” He ramps up the drama on “For Shame of Doing Wrong” with wonderful harmonies from Gregson and Collister, the dark, yearning ballad “How I Wanted To” and a riveting “Love in a Faithless Country,” the latter performance alone is worth the price of admission. As a teaser for Thompson fans, the final tune “Skull and Cross Bones” (an obscure rockabilly cover originally by Sparkle Moore) with a typically insane guitar solo, never appeared on a Thompson studio album. With its “you’re a jinx to my soul” lyrics, it seems like another kiss-off to his ex-wife.
Even with a few too many ballads, this is not only a long awaited expanded title to Thompson’s bulging catalog, but an essential addition to any fan’s collection and a reasonable place to start for anyone unfamiliar with his now-legendary talents.