There are fitting environments for rock’n’roll gigs, and then there’s this genteel country house setting at the height of the summer season. Cheshire’s Gawsworth Hall, built in 1480, is an Alice in Wonderland fever-dream of black and white timber dotted with clubs, its garden stage resembling a marquee on a particularly posh village green. Refreshments come from a tearoom that serves milk from the estate’s cows, and before the show tonight’s MC, a member of the family who lives at the hall, announces: “If anyone has had a large picnic and is feeling the onset of collywobbles, we have the St John Ambulance here.”
Then tonight’s performer walks on to the stage in a cut-off denim jacket, a battered Fender Stratocaster in his paws, blasting out a topically titled new song, Bones of Gilead. “No checkpoint will stop me,” Richard Thompson sings. “No ribcage will hold me.” His west London voice rasps with depth and energy, his fingers skating acrobatically across the strings. Few 69-year-olds can do this, let alone get away with it. Thompson does both, and manages somehow to appear absurdly cool in the process.
Fifty years after he played as a teenager in the greatest incarnation of the folk-rock band Fairport Convention (an anniversary he mentions tonight), Thompson still feels like a contemporary musician. His now familiar beret and neat beard play their part, a picture far removed from his 60s image as a tangle-haired scarecrow sketched by Quentin Blake. His prolific career has helped, too. He has played on countless classic folk albums (including Shirley Collins’s No Roses, Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus, his own I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight with his ex-wife, Linda Thompson), and has collaborated with David Byrne, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and Jim O’Rourke on the fantastic 2005 soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. His solo output soaks up many genres, including the blues, music hall and pop. His live album, 2003’s 1,000 Years of Popular Music offers a consummate example, beginning with medieval round Sumer Is Icumen In and finishing with a cover of Britney Spears’s Oops!… I Did It Again.
Tonight’s gig is one of a handful of festive summer gigs before a full tour this autumn, when Thompson’s self-produced 13th solo album, 13 Rivers, will be released (on 14 September). Thompson’s mode for this record, which was engineered by the War on Drugs’ favoured mixer, Clay Blair, in Liberace’s old studio in Los Angeles, is bared-teeth rock’n’roll, fleshed out by his Electric Trio colleagues, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome. The feverish blues of Her Love Was Meant for Me follow the set opener, telling a tale of a love that literally requires the protagonist’s upholstery to be “hosed down”. The Rattle Within is a swampy battle against the black dog featuring Jesus, the devil and bottles of gin. Both sound like Nick Cave on heat (the Australian should take note). It’s music best suited to a dark, smoky room – a little incongruous here, especially when half the audience have blankets across their knees. Their whoops and cheers are warm enough.
Then we plunge into the past, but Thompson never makes these trips seem sentimental or youth-chasing. His humble patter helps. Before a rare play of Fairport Convention’s 1968 album track, Tale in Hard Time, he says: “We played this once. In Slovenia. The audience was very forgiving. And very drunk.” When his band mistakenly return to stage after a solo spot, Thompson brushes them away comically. “Industrial action,” he tuts.
Gentler moments gloriously accompany the sunset. Take Care the Road You Choose from 2007’s Sweet Warrior carries over the crowd like a warm, cosseting wind. Then there’s the full-hearted version of Fairport Convention’s 1968 single Meet Me on the Ledge – a track Thompson played at his mother’s funeral (she specified it in her will). Its lyric bristles with the strange wisdom teenagers often have when they write about ageing, and Thompson’s voice is fantastic here, as it is throughout the show. “When my time is up/I’m going to see all my friends,” he sings bracingly, without any sighs of mortality.
Thompson is also a consummate storyteller – his style would well suit the theatre. They Tore the Hippodrome Down from 2017’s Acoustic Rarities details the journey of an old boy getting home with his shopping, remembering how his home town has changed, with touching moments of clarity. Guitar Heroes from 2015’s Jeff Tweedy-produced album Still is even better, a memoir of a stubborn boy from Notting Hill annoying his parents and losing girlfriends as he tries to play like Django Reinhardt, Hank Marvin and rockabilly picker James Burton. The song diverts playfully into wonky flourishes of these styles, revealing a refreshing absence of ego that is at the heart of Thompson’s appeal.
We’re also treated to two encores, and a brilliant run through 1982 single Wall of Death (a song covered by REM as a B-side at the height of their fame). There’s no let-up of energy, and no collywobbles here. Thompson’s liveliness keeps on going, and keeps impressing.