‘I thought it’d be a good career move to open for myself,” said Richard Thompson, explaining to the Wilbur Theatre crowd Saturday that he’d be filling in for his Canadian support act Doug Paisley, who had found himself without a visa. “Good exposure.” Thompson may have been making a wry joke, but he was on to something. An absent opener wasn’t a problem so much as an opportunity. Inserting his own solo acoustic set rather than seek out a replacement transformed a concert intended to feature Thompson’s electric trio into a showcase for practically the full, dazzling range of his talents as a guitarist and songwriter.
His half-hour alone on stage with an acoustic nearly demonstrated that all by itself. Even on a simple rock ’n’ roll song like “Valerie,” he was playing complex parts that did the work of two or more guitars at once, but it was all in the course of serving the songs. The Irish-folk chug of “Johnny’s Far Away” captured the rise and fall of a sea just rough enough to indicate trouble, while the tiny, ecstatic leaps he picked during “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” only deepened the contrast with the sadness of its tragic young romance.
Even with the addition of bass, drums and electricity, Thompson sustained the sensation of being stripped down while subtly expanding his palette. The rolling, clattering zydeco rhythm undergirding “Tear-Stained Letter” allowed him to turn the horn-accordion riff into a slithery, ringing drone, and he accompanied the ’70s arena-rock surge of “For Shame of Doing Wrong” with one of the countless stinging, unpredictable leads he whipped out through the night.
Bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome proved invaluable accomplices, particularly on the supple late-night smoky-lounge jazz of “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” and on “I’ll Never Give It Up,” where the intro’s amped-heartbeat thump gave way to a cut-time swing with drums exploding softly throughout. Even on something straightforward like the great Otis-Blackwell-by-way-of-the-Who basher “Daddy Rolling Stone,” Jerome kept the ground moving under the song’s feet.
Only once, during the jaw-dropping solo at the end of “Tear-Stained Letter,” did Thompson appear to be showing off. Typically, his flabbergasting playing was simply a matter of course, even in “Guitar Heroes,” a suite celebrating (and emulating) past masters such as Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, and Chuck Berry. “I still don’t know how my heroes did it,” he sang after perfectly aping their styles, right before playing a solo just like Richard Thompson.
At: The Wilbur, Saturday