I have friends who are absolutely bonkers over Richard Thompson -- his music, that is. I'd get CDs for my birthday (always welcome) and give them a spin, but I never quite caught his appeal. There was no denying the man's musical virtuosity: he's one of those rare singer-songwriters who'll move the song to either side of the 12th fret, and I can't think of anyone else who bends a note to quite the same degree (well ... Robbie Robertson, but what's he done for us lately?). But the man's vocal delivery frequently dipped below cool into a little too cool.
And who could blame him? Half his songs explore the inner lives of freaks and geeks who are bent on alienating everyone within spitting range. What person in his right mind wants to get close to, for instance, the young, angry, befuddled, would-be Casanova who's taken all his erotic leads from porno ("Read About Love")?
Then I saw him perform on stage -- just the man and his guitar. Thompson is a guy who loves an audience, and he knows how to keep them listening. His songs, even the sad ones, were a lark, and he usually acknowledged the raucous applause he received with, "Ah, but you're a wacky bunch!" This throw-away flaming of Kenny G. pretty much captures the mischief I experienced.
I picked up Live From Austin, TX, and wasn't at all sure what to expect. It's markedly different from my single-concert experience: he has a band backing him up, for one thing. He also reins in his more impish impulses, and delivers a very polished and professional performance. The "cool" factor is back, but I don't mind. In fact, I can almost see why he has fans who follow him around on tour. Almost.
Janiva Magness, on the other hand, is a very different performer. I've raved about her before, and played Do I Move You? at the cafe for three months running. Blues Ain't Pretty is pulling me deeper into the cult of Janiva. I can't muster the emotional distance to describe Magness's style, unless I summon Thompson as a counterpoint: when Magness sings, there is no distinction between the singer and the song. That makes for quite a heady experience, particularly when combined with guitar stylings that seem soaked in beer and cigarette smoke (courtesy of Kid Ramos and Kirk Fletcher). I love it, and very much hope to see the woman perform live.
Richard Thompson's site is here. Janiva Magness's site is here. And this is her MySpace page.