A month-long residency is more than four weekly concerts in a row. It’s an opportunity for an artist to work out material in front of a live crowd, hone a performance or really dig into songs or ideas. And while I only made it to the last of Jeff Thompson’s May shows in Isis Restaurant & Music Hall upstairs lounge, it was apparent that his residency had been a a well-used opportunity. And the audience — including many repeat attendees — was willingly along for the ride.
Thompson is both a skilled songwriter and poet, and seamlessly intertwined the two a number of times throughout the evening, beginning with an introduction of his band that led into a smooth and loungey rendition of “Improbable.” “I hope you can hear me, I’m taking it on trust,” he sings — it’s a magical moment in the song and a high point from which to launch a show.
But there was a wide safety net. The Isis lounge is comfortable and elegant, the crowd was supportive and the band (Aaron Price on keyboards and background vocals, Michael Hynes on bass, Patrick Armitage on drums and Jay Whitham on lead guitar) was flawless. So, even though he was mostly performing songs from So Far, So Strange, his most recent album, Thompson used the sure-footedness of the evening to take some risks.
“The Will of the Water” — written, Thompson said, on a contraband guitar in a monastery in India — shifts from dark melody and thick pulse into a bright, funk-informed bridge. At least at first glance, Thompson is of the David Wilcox/David Grey school of songwriting. Pop-savvy, thoughtful, rhythmically interesting. He’s also a good guitarist, a showman, and able to access his New Orleans roots for slashes of jazz and soul that elevate the songs above standard songwriter fare.
And while Thompson can put on an engaging show on his own, his songs really do benefit form the full band treatment. “Praying for Rain” (from 2008’s stillsmall voices) thrived with Armitage’s tasteful percussion; “Little Blue Box” built slowly with the resonance of bass and the flourish of cymbals.
Thompson announced at one point that he’d spent the last four-and-a-half months in New Orleans “and the last three-and-a-half weeks detoxing,” thanking Asheville for being “a good place to eat kale.” And then, on the heels of another spoken world piece, launched into a slinky, spooky version of “St. James Infirmary.” Price’s piano managed to be at once road house-y and haunted.
But even as Thompson can dive deeply into the dark moods and shadowed emotions, he’s also quick with a joke or a play on words. A daring performer, Thompson has the habit of taking the audience on an emotional journey — the poetic and poignant delivery of “Why So Many Songs About Water,” for example, with its thrumming, exploratory musicianship, coiled intensity and explosive delivery — only to throw in a wink, an impression, a musical slight-of-hand or smirk at the seriousness of the moment.
It’s like leaning in for a kiss, only to be met with a pair of Groucho Marx glasses.
The world needs its clowns as much as its breathless instances. And Thompson can deliver both, which add to the entertainment value of his performance.
That said, not everyone has the capacity or talent to plumb authentic emotion. Thompson’s song “Blow Me Open” — both on So Far, So Strange and live, with Price offering a lovely supporting vocal — is a goosepimple-inducing, soul-quenching three-and-a-half minutes of exactly just right. “Free the animals, I can’t control them anymore,” Thompson sings, his voice raspy and soulful over the lithe piano.
When you can write a song like that, you don’t need a pair of Groucho Marx glasses.
Thompson will be on tour for the month of June. Friends and fans can lend their support through a GoFundMe Campaign.