"How do you do it?" yelled a fan after Richard Thompson unleashed yet another dazzlingly deft guitar solo on the audience of Tuesday's Keswick Theatre show.
"If I told you," Thompson quipped, "then you'd know."
In more worshipful times, Thompson would have been called a guitar god. His technique (which, he joked, he developed via a mail-order course called "1,000 Ways to Play") is both awe-inspiring and seemingly effortless, without an ounce of posturing or swagger. When he plays a solo, which he does often and at length, he keeps his head bowed, intent on moving the song forward rather than turning it into a platform for his prowess.
Unlike most rock-based guitarists, Thompson's solos aren't progressions of small ideas but a handful of large ones. He rarely repeats a figure, tracing sinuous, unpredictable lines that somehow touch ground just as the song comes back to its head. As the massive workout that closed "Hard on Me" built to its tumultuous climax, Thompson seemed to be everywhere at once, bending low notes and plucking out high-pitched flurries as the rhythm section of Michael Jerome (drums) and Taras Prodaniuk (bass) thundered behind him.
At Thompson's right hand was multi-instrumental sideman Pete Zorn, whose crafty choices and tasteful playing brought new life to oft-played chestnuts. Zorn's croaking baritone saxophone added a comic twist to "The Wrong Heartbeat," and as a rhythm guitarist, he seemed to know just when to push Thompson along with a quickened strum or two.
Good as Thompson's band was, though, they were hardly missed when they were offstage for a handful of songs. With only his voice and an acoustic guitar, Thompson evoked the cat-paw strut of a music-hall orchestra on "Al Bowlly's in Heaven." The breathless rush of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" perfectly mirrored the song's tale of a motorcycle-riding outlaw who lives fast and dies young.
With the band behind him, Thompson castigated mistreating women ("Bad Monkey") and sarcastically glorified male thick-headedness ("Mr. Stupid"). But on his own, he let his guard down, a feat as thrilling as any technical display.