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Distracted by the news of the death of Fats Domino, the real 'King of Rock n Roll' according to Elvis Presley, I wasn't aware, as I took a leisurely sip of 'Starry Night' in the Frog and Parrot on Division Street, half listening to the strains of Johnny and the Hurricanes' Red River Rock dribbling out of the jukebox, that Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker had already started their opening set on stage at the nearby City Hall. It was one of those 'is it a 7.30pm start or 7.30pm doors?' moments, which in all fairness, I should have checked beforehand. Noticing the tiny figures up on stage, whilst peeking through the auditorium portholes, the pair illuminated brightly against a huge black backdrop, I made a quiet entrance through the side doors and occupied the nearest available seat, just in time to catch the last two and a half songs. The latter half of the set included Josienne's self-probing tour diary Chicago, which chronicles the duo's first visit to the US, essentially to kick start 'phase one' in their pursuit of world domination. The set closed with a rather beautiful and faithful reading of Nick Drake's entrancing Time Has Told Me, which if memory serves me correctly, originally featured a young Richard Thompson on guitar back in 1969.
These purveyors of misery and melancholy performed confidently on this big stage, standing or sitting in the case of Ben Walker, a fair distance beneath the City Hall's ornate ceiling. By way of contrast, the last time I saw the duo, which was at the City Screen's Basement Bar in York, their heads were almost touching the ceiling, indicating just how far Josienne and Ben's star has risen in their tenure as darlings of the British folk scene. Despite the contrasting scale of each of these two venues, the duo performed in precisely the same manner on both occasions, as if they were playing in some suburban front parlour, just the sort of thing to settle a Richard Thompson audience down in time for the main event.
Richard Thompson is pretty used to Sheffield City Hall, having played the venue several times before, including an early appearance with his former band Fairport Convention back in 1969, or was it 1970? Thompson wasn't too clear on the details. Strolling onto the stage from the right and attired in obligatory bohemian beret and sawn off denim jacket, fashioned to suggested a possible extra from the set of Sons of Anarchy Season 8, an image that would come in handy later, with the appearance in the set of the ultimate MC anthem 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, the singer/guitarist took his rightful place centre stage with little further embellishment.
Occasionally playful, Thompson seemed to know his audience well, inviting them to become his band momentarily, for a blistering performance of Tear Stained Letter, with the audience split into three groups; the harmony chorus to his right, the saxophone section to his left and the drummers up in the Gods. Acoustic throughout and equipped with an archetypal singer/guitarist aesthetic, Thompson delivered some of his best loved songs right on cue, such as a highly impassioned Beeswing and a gorgeous reading of Dimming of the Day before offering a heartfelt tribute to his former bandmate Sandy Denny, returning to the timeless Who Knows Where the Time Goes, which for my money at least, in the absence of the late Sandy, would have benefited enormously had Josienne Clarke been invited up on stage to join him; she was in the building after all, and she does occasionally provide an exemplary take on the iconic song on a good night, or on any night for that matter.
Generous with his own repertoire however, Thompson included recently revived and revitalised acoustic arrangements of songs not normally included in his set, due in part to the release of his latest album ACOUSTIC RARITIES. "What is a rarity?" Thompson enquired rhetorically. In this case, the definition appears to point towards self-penned originals not previously recorded by Thompson, or if they had been previously recorded, then possibly by different singers. Songs like Push and Shove and They Tore the Hippodrome Down, each injected with Thompson's distinctive guitar style, as well as more familiar fare, such as Thompson's biggest 'hit' to date, I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, together with the bleak God Loves a Drunk and the sublime Persuasion.
With no less than four songs furnishing the encore, including an audience request for I Feel So Good and the familiar Cropredy anthem Meet on the Ledge, Thompson concluded with Read About Love, the fifth song of the night from the RUMOR AND SIGH set, leaving the Sheffield audience pleading for even more, knowing perfectly well that they had already been treated to enough to keep them more than satisfied. Until the next time then.