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Reviews: Thompson, Tenors rock Cultural District

Friday, August 01, 2003

By Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette Weekend Editor

It's hard to watch Richard Thompson and not think it a bit obscene that one man has been possessed with so much talent. Touring on his 25th album -- so let's hope you've heard of him by now -- the British rocker, folk artist, troubadour, poet, guitar hero, comedian (whatever you want to call him) came into the Byham Wednesday night and scorched the place with his rich voice and distinctive aqua Strat.

An electric Thompson show is a precious commodity, which he and the band made the most of with a 21-song, 2 1/4-hour set that touched on his typically superb new album, "The Old Kit Bag," and reached back to what should have been his greatest hits.

The band was versatile beyond any reasonable expectation, grinding through rockers like "I'll Tag Along," caressing ballads like "Missy How You Let Me Down" and "I Misunderstood" and transforming into an acoustic jazz combo for "Al Bowly's in Heaven." Dreadlocked drummer Earl Harvin powered the band while adding new complexities to Thompson's rhythms. Bassist Rory McFarlane, who did some beautiful solo work with and without a bow, could fit in anywhere. And Pete Zorn has got to be one of the best utility fielders, mastering "the saxophone family," mandolin, guitar and vocal harmonies.

Of course, when you're backing Thompson, you bring your A-game. He was in the mood to jam, attacking his guitar with those long, twisting, distinctly Celtic-flavored solos that don't sound even remotely like anyone else's. "Gethsemane" was thick with minor-chord drama. "Tear-Stained Letter" and "Crawl Back" were breathless chases. During "Shoot Out the Lights," played as dark and chilling as anything at Ozz-fest (which was in town, too), it sounded like the strings were being ripped off.

A surprising twist in the middle of the set was the lovely pairing of "Walking on a Wire" with "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," two songs known for featuring the vocals of his former wife, Linda.

As if his material wasn't varied enough, Thompson threw in a piece from his clever "1000 Years of Popular Music" project. This evening's selection was "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo," a folk song from 1590 played solo and sung in that "colloquial, medieval Italian we all struggle with."

He played right up until the 11 p.m. curfew, flying across his acoustic guitar on fan favorite "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and, finally, savoring every word of the new "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen."

From start to finish, it was simply another phenomenal Richard Thompson concert. Raving about him time and time again is getting a little predictable; fortunately, his music never is.

Opening the show was British newcomer Alexi Murdoch, who put the crowd under his own spell with a haunting acoustic style reminiscent of Nick Drake.

Cook, Dixon & Young

Name any vocal music genre and the chances are good that a tenor trio exists to execute it. The Three Tenors, These Three Tenors, The Irish Tenors, The Celtic Tenors and The American Tenors collectively cover an abundance of musical species.

As if to leave nothing undone, along come Cook, Dixon & Young, formerly known as Three Mo' Tenors. Their repertoire spans seven genres, from opera to Broadway to jazz to soul to gospel to blues to spirituals.

Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young performed their eclectic concert on Wednesday evening at Heinz Hall under the direction of their "conceiver and director," Broadway impresario Marion J. Caffey.

Demonstrating their accomplished operatic credentials, they opened the concert with three solo arias that were truncated, miked and amplified, yet sung with solid bel canto technique.

The robust, classically trained voices and high-tech sound system overwhelmed the spirituals but added a powerful dimension to the jazz, scat, gospel and blues tunes.

In their ensemble passages, the trio sang with precise harmony and tight rhythms. Vocally, each had astounding technical control across the genres and throughout the tessituras and dynamics.

If one moment stood above the rest, it was Dixon's definitive rendition of the civil rights anthem, "Make Them Hear You."

The versatility and polish of Cook, Dixon & Young should eliminate any further need for tenor trios. Unless, with Douglas Ahlstedt, Kevin Gruden and Gary Lakes residing here, we get the Pittsburgh tenors specializing in Steelers fight songs.

-- By Eric Haines, freelance writer

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.

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