IN CONCERT: Teddy Thompson broods with a happy face
By JOSEF WOODARD
Teddy Thompson, a tall British 30-year-old, is blessed and cursed to be the son of his father, Richard. What’s it like to be an offspring in the same business as a legend widely hailed as one of the song medium’s greatest living artists? Thompson the younger seems to be working out the answer to that question in public.
Teddy also seems to have finally wriggled out from under the familial shadow and taken on a strong artistic persona of his own. Richard’s name or musical imprimatur didn’t come up when Teddy played Saturday at the Lobero Theatre, his third appearance in the “Sings Like Hell” series — not including guest shots with his dad’s band — but his first in the headliner slot. (Opener Etienne de Rocher was also a solid musical contender, making this one of the better “Sings Like Hell” evenings of the year).
This is Teddy’s time to shine. His just slightly-offbeat songwriting skills and the understated warmth and vulnerability of his vocals give this Thompson an ideal mixture of confidence and fragility.
Hobgoblins of mishaps crept onstage early in the set, in a comical scenario involving a broken string, a broken guitar cord (from when Thompson fled the stage without unplugging) and his guitarist’s own ruffled setup as he tried to help the flustered boss. It was one of those yawning, time-killing passages on stage while technical difficulties are ironed out in real time, on the audience’s dime.
Yet what might have seemed a downside turned into an encounter with human foibles for a performer who eschews glib showbiz polish. Over the course of the evening, the troubled moment was handily overcome through the force of Thompson’s nervously witty persona (he does have his father’s impish sense of humor) and, more importantly, the increasingly powerful stuff of his songs.
It wasn’t always thus. Thompson’s first album, released on Virgin in 2000, was a pleasant enough exercise, but it pales considerably compared to last year’s “Separate Ways,” on the Verve Forecast label. With this more mature song set, Thompson has been rightly hailed as someone to watch and listen for, on his own merits. Never mind the last name.
On Saturday, bolstered by a strong and empathetic four-piece band, there were moments silly, grooving and sad, in a generally memorable, balanced show. Thompson opened with an anomaly, “Shine So Bright,” also his latest album’s opener — with bittersweet vocals over a percolating electronic track.
This set showed his natural penchant for things melancholic, tinged with dark humor. But it also showcased his taste for smooth pop grooves with secret emotional depths. That’s the charm, for instance, of “Altered State,” with its refrain “I like to put on a happy face while I cry on the inside,” a telling hint of the artful and conflicted emotional life of his music.
In the margins between his original material, Thompson moved from the sea shanty “Sally Brown” (used in the film “Pirates of the Caribbean”) to a genuinely moving, starkly beautiful version of the George Jones classic “She Thinks I Still Care,” played with only voice and guitar. As Thompson sang lines like “Just because I saw her then went all to pieces/She thinks I still care,” a stilled aura overcame the house. As he also showed in his performance in the recent concert film “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” Thompson can unearth new meaning in the songs of others.
Then again, dealing with the vagaries of the heart and the dizziness of love between stations is one of Thompson’s specialties. His expertise on the landscape of romantic ambivalence comes through in songs like “I Wish it Was Over” and especially the hypnotic “Separate Ways,” a half-numb, half-chilling song about walking up to the brink of a breakup, but tentatively and with contradictory feelings.
Few contemporary artists have so eloquently nailed the state of being torn by feelings. He has found his niche, singing assuredly about an unsettling world where hearts, social order and guitar strings break without notice, but where adversities can be conquered with forbearance and touches of fatalistic wit.