Linda Thompson, Aladdin Theater, Portland, OR (October 2002)

"Thank you -- that's the last time I'm going to sit in a darkened room for 17 years," said a smiling Linda Thompson as she returned to the stage for an encore at the end of her first live performance on tour in support of her new CD, Fashionably Late.

It's her first recording since 1985's One Clear Moment, and her first tour since the breakup of Richard and Linda Thompson in 1982. Perhaps not coincidentally (since they share a booking agent), she began her tour at one of Richard's professed favorite venues, where he had appeared in a solo acoustic performance just five weeks earlier. She was received warmly and enthusiastically by a crowd that was about half the size that her ex-husband typically draws.

It's a fine wire Linda Thompson is walking as she returns to the stage after 20 years. Unless she wants to be just another Baby Boomer nostalgia act (and one whose following was limited, if cultish, to begin with), she has to sing her new songs, and they have to be good enough to hold the crowd's attention. But she also has to sing a few of the old ones, and do them well enough to satisfy the die-hards who've been listening to her old discs for the past two decades and more.

She trod that wire confidently and expertly. In a 90-minute set, she sang all but one of the songs from her new album, and leavened them with some of her best and most popular numbers from the Richard-and-Linda days and a few other well-selected chestnuts.It helped mightily that she was accompanied by son Teddy Thompson, whose voice is a perfect complement to his mother's, and who is probably a better singer now in his mid-20s than his father was at that age; and by daughter Kamila ("Kami"), the youngest of the couple's three offspring, who also contributed sweet harmonizing. She was backed by a serviceable band that included Teddy and Kami on acoustic guitars, Jason Crigler on electric guitar and mandolin, and Martin Green on accordion and keyboards.

Teddy opened with a mostly low-key (indeed, the term "slacker" comes to mind) set of his own songs, most of them new since his now out-of-print eponymous debut. With a slightly diffident stage manner but a sharp and self-deprecating sense of humor, his stage personality is a blend of both parents'. Some of his new songs, particularly one about leaving his boyhood home in Los Angeles for New York, show him to be a promising lyricist, but the arrangements tend to need fleshing out. In addition to providing lovely harmonies, husky-voiced Kami Thompson stepped up to the mike in mid-set to belt out a rocking number penned by her mum, "Son of a Son of a Gun."

But the band was there to support Linda Thompson and her songs. Singer and audience took each other's measure on the openers, "Dear Mary and "All I See," and found each other amenable. Then she hammed it up on "Weary Life," her wry, folksy take on the hard lot of a married woman, and was rewarded with laughter at nearly every couplet. She and her kids exchanged pleased and relieved glances, and the show took wings.

Amongst such somber fare as her ballad of homesickness for Scotland, "Banks of the Clyde," the very English folk-rock murder ballad "Nine Stone Rig," and the a capella Scottish ballad of domestic violence, "Blue Blazin' Blind Drunk," Thompson's humorous patter and a few lighter numbers kept things from descending into doom and gloom. Accompanied only by herself on guitar, she sang a reworked version of an old Gerry Rafferty ditty that she said Rafferty wrote after she broke up with him, "His Mother Didn't Like Me Anyway."

Her powerful but understated delivery of the songs from Fashionably Late lent them a vibrancy they mostly lack on the CD. And the songs themselves, mostly co-written by Linda and Teddy, reveal the mother-son duo as skillful writers of modern English folk-rock -- and also fine interpreters of others' works in the genre, as evidenced by their evocative duet on Lal Waterson's "Evona Darling."

It was hard not to contemplate family dynamics as daughter and son sang backing vocals on Linda's bitter divorce song, "Telling Me Lies." But the real magic came when this new family grouping sang the songs of Richard and Linda Thompson. They eased into the back-catalog about midway through the main set with the folk-pop "Lonely Hearts" from 1979's Sunnyvista, then didn't return to the well until the final number of the set, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", the title song from Richard and Linda's critically acclaimed first album.

On record at least, Linda was never a belter on the order of Linda Ronstadt. Her skill rested, rather, on her ability to wring every last nuance of emotion from a song, without descending into bathos or hysteria. A 20-year hiatus has not diminished Linda Thompson's power as a singer in the least. She may in fact have gained some authority with maturity.

That certainly seemed the case with her first encore number, a quietly devastating reading of what may be Richard Thompson's most affecting song, "Dimming of the Day." Accompanied only by Teddy on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, Linda closed her eyes and inhabited this hymn of love, devotion and longing, wringing the hearts and souls of the audience in a way that many lesser singers can only pray for.

She followed with a song she co-wrote with Rufus Wainwright, the jazzy "Paint and Powder Beauty," and closed with an unexpected rendition of one of Richard Thompson's most idiosyncratic pieces (and a perennial favorite of the hardcore fans) "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away," from his solo debut, Henry the Human Fly.

"This was a lovely audience," she said later, as she sat cross-legged on the corner of the stage, chatting with hangers-on and signing various posters, photos and CD booklets. The audience was merely repaying the performer for an evening of engaging music, skillfully delivered by a performer who was personable, friendly and witty. Here's hoping she's not gone so long this time.

[Gary Whitehouse]

Learn more, including remaining dates on her short tour, at this web site.