Mention Richard Thompson and a vision of the grim reaper in blue suede shoes comes to mind. A prolific composer and musicologist who manages to breathe new life into the obscure idioms he resurrects, the 35-year-old Briton is a man of fascinating contradictions.
A practicing Muslim whose attitude toward stardom is ambivalent at best, Thompson is a cynical ironist with strong religious convictions, a champion of neglected strains of traditional music who cites Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis as main influences and a brooding fatalist who wraps rather unpleasant ideas in disarmingly lovely music.
Death and betrayal are his central themes, yet he often tailors his music to sound like some lilting ditty you faintly recall having heard in the distance at a May Day pageant.
All these conflicting impulses collided in a most impressive way at the Beverly Theatre on Sunday night. Backed by an excellent quartet, the bearded minstrel showcased material from his current album, "Across a Crowded Room," which, despite his insistence that his music is not autobiographical, is being widely interpreted as a chronicle of the breakup of his 10-year marriage and creative partnership with vocalist Linda Thompson.
A longtime cult and critics' darling who has released about a dozen worthy, poorly promoted LPs, Thompson co-founded the folk-rock combo Fairport Convention in 1967 and forged an eclectic style with a real sense of history. As did the Band, Thompson shops five centuries of music and appropriates whatever strikes his fancy. So, you find banjo, bagpipe, mandolin, accordion and Stratocaster guitar punctuating an amalgam of country, pop, Cajun, polka and Irish reel.
Perhaps because of the unusual instruments he employs, there's a medieval flavor to much of Thompson's music and the overriding image it evokes is of the human heart as a poorly defended fortress that is finally and inescapably conquered and pillaged.
At the Beverly, Thompson kept his foot firmly planted in the 20th Century and opted to just kick out the jams. Clad in a snazzy blue suit and leopard-skin tie, he was dressed like a rocker and he played like one too. A plain and unaffected singer, Thompson plays it close to the vest as a vocalist, but isn't above an occasional flash of pyrotechnics on the guitar.
He has a gorgeously discordant, effortless touch, and he closed the show with a dazzling guitar duel with band member Clive Gregson. The real surprise of the evening, however, was Thompson's between-songs chat. Considering that he writes love songs that often sound like death sentences, he has a surprising and wonderfully weird sense of humor. Should he ever tire of the music biz, he ought to consider cooking up a project with the guys from Monty Python.