Thompson tears up the hall.

The packed October 6 concert at Northampton’s Calvin Theater was billed as “Loud and Rich,” a wordplay on the evening’s two headliners, Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson. Many in attendance—including us—felt the show would have been stronger if it had featured more Thompson and less Wainwright.

Wainwright opened the evening with an eighty-minute set that felt longer. There’s nothing wrong with Wainwright’s voice—at age 63 it retains both power and range. In like fashion, he remains an incisive critic of modern culture. Part of his set was like a musical newspaper, as he chipped in with sharp parodies of phenomena such as the cash-for-clunkers program, the (non) glories of Florida, and the economic theories of Paul Krugman. He also did a hysterical song about an embattled couple forced to stay together because they couldn’t sell their house during the recession. Okay, not too many songwriters would have the intelligence or the moxie to write folk songs about economics. But a little of Wainwright goes a long way. As he smirked, rattled off surrealistic remarks, and balanced flamingo-like on one leg, Wainwright became akin to the class clown with a tiresome shtick. And we certainly could have done without the gratuitous references to past drug usage and sexual conquests. Remember how embarrassing it got when The Smothers Brothers aged and Tommy continued to do the Mom-always-liked-you-best routine? That’s what it’s like when guys in their sixties evoke the Sixties. Wainwright’s best moments were when he was more serious, as he was with more recent material such as “Motel Blues” and his sublime reworking of old Charlie Poole material.

All sour tastes vanished when Richard Thompson took the stage, bedecked in his now-signature outfit: black beret, jeans, work boots, and a military-like shirt with faux insignia. Looking a bit like one of Ché’s guerillas, Thompson wielded two devastating weapons: his cutaway acoustic guitar and a repertoire of dark, poignant songs. Thompson’s stage persona is, perhaps, as much of a mask as Wainwright’s, but the contrast is that of near-chaos to utter control. Nothing rattled Thompson, who easily deflected an obnoxious audience member who was either drunk or deluded and called out for “Whipping Post” (which Thompson did not write or does not perform). He just let other audience members shush the idiot and did his thing.

And what a thing it was! Thompson opened with “Cold Kisses” and a flurry of guitar work that showcases what makes him so extraordinary. Lots of players, including Thompson, can speed up and down the neck, but very few can pick with him. His right hand control is so complete that it’s often as if his thumb and index finger operate on a completely different circuit than the other three digits. It gives Thompson’s solo guitar the weight and volume of two. What mood do you want the guitar to set? Muscular and dangerous? Check. Jaunty and dancy? Check. Glass-like delicacy? Check. Daggers to the heart? Double check on that one. Thompson rocked out on “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” got the crowd singing (“Johnny’s Far Away”), and lulled the 800-strong throng to astonished and appreciative silence with his stunning rendition of “Sunset Song.” And who doesn’t love “1952 Vincent Black Lightning?” Though we’ve loved the song for years, we’ve never heard it played better. Every song in Thompson’s set was a winner and—though it was about ten minutes longer than Wainwright’s—it felt like the evening was just getting started when he left the stage with his powerful anti-Iraq War “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.” Thompson’s first encore was “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” and he finished off with a duet with Wainwright. Loudon played his heart out on that one. He had to, or he’d have been left in the dust.

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