I was much younger when I discovered the music of Richard Thompson. So was Richard Thompson.
In 1982, my future brother-in-law (no, not that one... the other one) introduced me to the newly-released Shoot Out the Lights by British folk-rock troubadours Richard & Linda Thompson. The album — comprised of eight heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching, songs — was a sonic chronicle of tension, specifically tension in a marriage and tension with colleagues. The married duo was without a record contract and had recently toured as a support act for Gerry Rafferty (of Baker Street fame). Rafferty offered financial assistance to the Thompsons, and expected control in the recording process. Richard and Rafferty butt heads often. At the same time, the Thompsons' marital union was crumbling. The album was released and was lavished with critical acclaim. However, it would be the Thompson's last effort together. Although they continued to tour, they would divorce by year's end.
Shoot Out the Lights was, honestly, like nothing I had heard before. Granted, at the time, I was a rabid Queen fan and had recently latched on to the ubiquitous New Wave sounds emanating from every FM radio. Richard Thompson was a singer with roots in the English countryside, evoking visions of a guy in a colorful doublet and tights, strumming a lute and serenading the townspeople. He was pretty cool and his style stood out among the trendiness of Adam Ant and A Flock of Seagulls. My brother-in-law praised Richard Thompson's work, and in between Grateful Dead shows, managed to see him perform live quite a few times.
I, however, did not.
I've been to a lot of concerts over the past half century. I've seen big names and small names at big venues and small venues. I have missed the opportunity to see a few of my favorites over the years. Although a fan, I never got to see Billy Joel. Sure, he tours regularly now, but I want to see 1975 Billy Joel, not forty-seven years later Billy Joel. I missed seeing Pink Floyd on their Animals tour due to a miscommunication in my desire for tickets. (That's a long story for which I have since forgiven my brother.) Alas, Pink Floyd are no more, but I'll be goddamned if I'm going to give irrelevant loudmouth Roger Waters a dime of my hard-earned pay to see him croak out his racist, out-of-touch politics. I actually haven't listened to Animals in years.
But Richard Thompson is different. At 73, he's still got it. He still writes good songs. He still is pretty handy on the guitar and he still releases good albums. And I finally got the long-delayed opportunity to see him live.
And it was a somewhat rude awakening for Josh Pincus.
Richard was scheduled to play at a small outdoor amphitheater in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, a typical "green-lawn and backyard-swing set" suburb, sitting just outside the city limits of notorious Camden. After a rain-out the previous week, Richard was kind enough to take the ninety-minute drive down to Haddon Heights from his Montclair, New Jersey home and perform seven days later.
I arrived nice and early and found a wide choice of seats among the permanent benches facing the small stage. I sat at the rear of an open lawn, using a stone wall as a little table to eat the salad I brought with me. As I ate, more folks began to file in. Some were carrying folding camp chairs. Others toted blankets. Most hefted some sort of paper bag emblazoned with the familiar "Whole Foods" logo. Just about everyone (except me) arrived in Subarus. Oh.... and everyone was old. I mean really old!
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I was lucky enough to overhear snippets of conversations around me. "My kids are seeing Pearl Jam tonight. I can't even name a Pearl Jam song!" "I sat right over there last month to see Kathleen Edwards. Right over there. You see? Right there... in the middle. Right where I'm pointing. Right there! Right there!" "That Jenny Lewis is from that Rilo Kiley band." When I turned my head to see the source of each of these conversations, I felt as though I was sitting in the courtyard of a retirement community — you know, the ones that are advertised during afternoon reruns of Wagon Train and Perry Mason.
About three-quarters into the show, as it neared to its palpable conclusion, I spotted a guy — in my peripheral vison — making his way down the aisle to my right. Dressed head to toe in tie-dye and sporting a birds'-nest-like beard, he looked like he just wandered over from wallowing in the mud on Max Yasgur's rain-soaked farm. While Mr. Thompson was introducing his next selection, "Mr. Woodstock" began to yell at a young man seated at a long table a few feet in front of me. The fellow — in his early 20s — was checking over a few open laptop screens that were arranged across the table's surface. He wore headphones and one hand was resting on a computer mouse. He was — obviously — an integral part of the technical crew. "Woodstock" raised his voice and screamed "Hey! Sound Guy! Sound Guy!" The young man's gaze never waivered from the screens. "Sound Guy! Hey! Sound Guy!," he continued, "Turn it up, man! The people across the street can't hear, man! Turn it up, man! Hey! Sound Guy!" (The venue was so packed, that some overflow of fans had taken to parking their blankets across a street that bisects the park. A distance away from the stage, but still within reasonable proximity to enjoy the performance.) "Woodstock" was relentless. "SOUND GUY!," he blared. Finally, the young man removed his headset and calmly addressed the angry hippie. He spoke just four words. He said, "I'm the 'lights' guy" and turned his attention back to his work.
A look of confusion spread across "Woodstock's" face. It was as though he had just been answered in the dead language of Aramaic. He was speechless for a moment, his head cocked to one side like a dog trying to figure out where in the backyard he hid that bone. Then, he continued right where he left off. "Hey! Sound Guy! Sound Guy! Turn it up!" By this point, the 'lights' guy didn't care.
Mrs. Pincus was out of town on this day. When I got home, I called to tell her about the show. I related the anecdotes I just told you, driving home my point about the advanced age of my fellow concert-goers. "Are we that old?," I asked.
"Well, you are.," she replied.