"The bucket is a cruel mistress," remarked Richard Thompson as he dipped his hand into the one into which the staff of the Freight & Salvage had placed the audience's paper slips for the all-request show he played there in Berkeley on Thursday. It was the second of a four-night run, but I was only dedicated enough to go to the one. Four was enough to meet the demand, it seems, for the show was not entirely sold out. If it'd been just one, tickets would have vanished in a flash: RT is a legend among singer-songwriter-guitarists, which is why I felt moved to go, even though I'm not all that familiar with much of his work.
Judging from what he pulled out of the bucket, the audience divided into three categories:
1. People who wanted to hear RT perform his own compositions. Half of these requested "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," his romance of outlaw motorcyclists cast in the form of a traditional tragic English folk ballad. It was the first song he played, and then he kept tossing aside further slips naming the same song. "Ooh, 'Vincent White Lightning,'" he read at one point. "I haven't done that one yet," and he improvised a few cheerful bars on the subject.
Other songs of his own that I recognized were "Sam Jones" (a really outstanding performance), "Gethsemane", and one of his rare comic songs, "The Hots for the Smarts". Unfortunately he didn't get to my own choice, which was "The Poor Ditching Boy".
2. People who wanted to hear him play old Fairport Convention numbers, whether he sang them originally or not. He did both the long ballads "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves", the latter of which he described as a more coherent story than the former; and Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" which he framed as a tribute to her.
3. People who wanted to hear him play any old thing, the more unlikely the better. He struggled through the Beatles' "Something", which he said he'd never played before, giving up before the middle eight. After that he started tossing a lot of slips aside: "Lovely song, but I don't know it," i.e. well enough to play. Lovers of RT's guitar virtuosity could admire his attempt to reduce another Beatles song, "A Day in the Life", to that compass, giant orchestral crescendo and all; again he gave up after the middle section and jumped straight to the closing chord.
Probably the most impressive cover performance of the evening was "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", the same Dylan song that Patti Smith sang at the Nobel ceremony. But otherwise the requests started to feel disintegrated by the end, and someone called out, "Play what you want!" But RT replied, "Sorry, it doesn't work that way." After two hours, 'twas enough.