Fifty years after his first band — Fairport Convention — debuted, Thompson has released a new solo record, 13 Rivers, a dark, churning set of claustrophobic rockers on which he decries the vagaries of love and age in all his 69-year-old glory. In a power trio format, Thompson still practically gives guitar lessons onstage — as a virtuoso player, he’s one of the best combination electric/acoustic guitarists touring today. If you can imagine fusing Django Reinhardt with Jimi Hendrix on a Strat, then you will start to understand Thompson’s brilliant range.
Probably too eclectic for mainstream popularity, Thompson’s career has veered from his Folk roots in the ’60s to his fruitfully bitter partnership with then-wife Linda in the ’70s to his long-running solo career. But as a musician’s musician with a cult following, Thompson is revered by many of his peers, as well as newcomers. His legendary stature totally overshadows his sales.
Thompson has cut stone classics like 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, both recorded with Linda Thompson and edged in caustic charms. Then there are solo peaks like 1991’s Rumor and Sigh, where the exquisite, fingerpicked “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” one of his standards, first rumbled into public consciousness.
On his last few records, Thompson enlisted Buddy Miller and Jeff Tweedy to helm the controls and produce. For 13 Rivers, he produces himself, and this takes his new songs tonally to a brooding, mordant place — one familiar to any Thompson fan. The album opens with “The Storm Won’t Come,” one of Thompson’s trademark slow-burn stunners, where his high-wire, twang guitar, Taras Prodaniuk’s throbbing bass and Michael Jerome’s roiling percussion spiral into a cathartic coda. The ballad “My Rock, My Rope” unfurls like a mid-life prayer, with the narrator asking for the strength to escape his demons. “The Dog in You,” a brutal Blues song, and “Bones of Gilead,” a sturdy, kinetic riff of a tune, each reference Old Testament God — this time for his wrath — as both menace and wonder creep into the mix.