Kind thanks to Joanne Wood
It Like Thompson
[Fez under Time Cafe, NYC, 4/14/03]
"Welcome to our little soiree." Thus RT greeted the eighty or so assorted press folk and industry others who crammed themselves into the tiniest of underground clubs in lower Manhattan for an intimate solo acoustic sneak-peek at his forthcoming-in-the US cd, "The Old Kit Bag."
Though forty-five minutes is obviously too short a time to do his new cd justice, RT's welcome invited us to treat the evening's event as a sort of musical wine-tasting -- not a full-out party, but just a sip of the heady vintages to come when the cd and full band tour are finally uncorked.
Judging by the enthusiastic response to the show and the awed comments I overheard afterwards, I'd say RT definitely sent that entire roomful of people home Monday night thirsty for more.
First, the setlist, which consisted of all OKB songs with one 1000 Years song [another upcoming cd -- available with luck by NYC shows] thrown in for good measure:
Outside of the Inside
She Said It Was Destiny
A Love You Can't Survive
So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo
Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen
I'll Tag Along
One Door Opens
RT's chosen comic theme of the evening was "why I never have hits" [eg, of the early, colloquial Italian of "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo", RT observed in mock rue,"I might have shot myself in the foot again, hit-wise"], but many of the audience members seemed to think otherwise of the new album: "They're ALL hits!" one particularly optimistic man called out, to which RT responded, "All -- or _none_", inviting audience members to be the judge as he played one brilliant new tune after another.
Although this was not the strongest I've seen RT, I was struck throughout the performance by how, even on a comparatively pared down and informal outing, he carefully works every phrase, every riff. Able to see his hands clearly, I couldn't get over how much left-handed style goes into shaping and bending almost every single note, even in the seemingly straightforward or oft-repeated runs. Those left fingers are working the strings so tirelessly, bending and fluttering and shaping the tones, that RT makes every other guitarist I've heard sound downright lazy in comparison.
In that tiny room, I was struck too -- and I mean with an almost physical impact -- by how much power he generates through both his playing and his singing. RT makes you realize how much one man and a guitar can really do. "Gethsemane" as an opener was almost too strong for such a small venue -- when I felt the floor and my seat literally shaking, I was so sure I was staring at the culprit onstage that it took me a few minutes to recall the subway that runs right next to the club. The dynamic modulations of "Outside of the Inside" were, as always, breathtaking, and the crisp chord work of the pop "Destiny" explained why RT seemed in this case almost serious when he noddingly confided to us afterwards that that song was sure to be a "...Hit."
But despite his ever-astonishing guitar work, it is RT's often underrated singing that in some ways really catches your attention on many of these numbers. To hear him go from that gravelly low baritone of "I'll Tag Along" to the soaring heights of the high tenor range on "A Love You Can't Survive" is to realize how far he's come from that ill-at-ease solo singer who joked, "I have a solid half-octave." And he sings with as much style in his voice as his fingers get from those strings, sounding effortless in his perfectly controlled and thrilling trills and embellishments that give his rich, warm voice such distinctively musical qualities. On Monday "Jealous Words" impressed me as particularly strong in its union of very stylish and assured, bluesy singing with equally flashy guitar solos between the verses.
While "this small "soiree" effectively showcased the strengths of the fabulous "Old Kit Bag" as well as the virtuosity of RT as a performer, the singular warmth and humor of his stage presence came through as well. I imagine the world might contain a few other performers comfortable enough with an audience to acknowledge the frog in their throat ["seems to be a big frog.. well, maybe a little tree frog"], but I can't believe there are ANY others, anywhere, goofy enough to start TALKING TO that frog [!]. And it was entirely at audience request that RT closed the show with two numbers he admitted he was not confident handling solo. When an audience member urged him to try "I'll Tag Along", saying "That's easy!", RT in playful good humor shot back, "Easy, eh? OK, you come up here and sing it then, smartass!" before tackling it in good form. "One Door Opens" as a closer was quite a surprise, as he had very nearly launched into "Crawl Back" before deciding last minute to honor the previous request, one that he'd seemed to nix decisively when it was called for by saying, "But I'm only one man!"
One man or not, RT on his own sounds fuller than most bands, as anyone who has heard him perform solo can testify. When midway through the show, RT sought to reassure us that on the cd these same songs, recorded with the full band, were much more complex and dense layerings of sounds and textures and "eth-nicities", the real joke was that it was already hard for most of us in that audience to imagine how any sound could be more dense and layered than the careful tapestries of song his fingers and voice were weaving for us right there. Indeed, if this performance was supposed to be the stripped down, stingy version, my auditory imagination nearly staggered at the idea of hearing the full band version live in just a few short weeks. After all, if you're already feeling quite tipsy at just the first sip, what will the full draught do to you? That's a question I can't wait to have answered.