The power of simplicity was never clearer than in Tuesday's concert by Joan Armatrading and Richard Thompson at the Universal Amphitheatre. While Thompson's moving set kept the singer-songwriter firmly behind an acoustic guitar, Armatrading soared only with the barest of accompaniment.
Armatrading has discovered a raw, smoky intensity through her new "What's Inside" album. And it was when the English singer was joined Tuesday by a cellist and a violinist for three acoustic songs (including the quietly lovelorn "Everyday Boy") that she best recaptured that album's subtle emotional ambience.
The fusion of jazz, funk, rock and reggae that made up the rest of her show was often kept afloat by the sheer enthusiasm of Armatrading's acoustic guitar chording. But her 90-minute set was too often knocked off balance by mid-tempo music that, while always well-played by her five-man band, was hardly memorable.
By contrast, Thompson's energy rarely wavered in a too-brief set that focused largely on material from his new "you?me?us?" album. The veteran English folk-rocker was sometimes so overcome that he even swayed his hips and kicked up his heels while singing emotionally rich songs laced with wicked humor.
Exploring his usual themes of love and obsession through "Cold Kisses" and other new songs, Thompson sacrificed little of his music's inherent drama by playing without a band. It was powered enough by the moody throttle of his acoustic guitar, playing high-velocity folk as urgent as a speed-metal riff.