The album "Final Encore: a Live Tribute to Robbin Thompson" is a labor of love. The two-CD set documents the February 2016 multiartist concert for the late Richmond singer and songwriter, who died of complications from cancer in October 2015.
Artists start their sections with affectionate, anecdotal introductions, thoughtfully programmed as individual tracks, given that a few are roughly half as long as the songs they precede. It's a deep dive into the songbook and history of arguably the area's hottest contender in the golden age of rock and roll, who mellowed into a burnished area presence.
Thompson never became a breakout rock god like his onetime bandmate Bruce Springsteen, but he was a solid local hero. He wrote a lot of songs, but is best known for his collaboration with Steve Bassett, "Sweet Virginia Breeze," which became the official popular state song of Virginia in 2015. You could hear his songs on the radio in the car on the way to the grocery store, and then run into him in the produce section. That may or may not have been the world's loss, but it was Richmond's gain.
He left behind friends dedicated to keeping his memory alive. Interviewed together at a West End Starbucks, drummer Robert "Rico" Antonelli and guitarist Velpo Robertson had been with Thompson for most of his long career, a collaboration that stretched a full four decades. It started in the '70s, after Thompson's big label debut smoldered, but failed to catch fire in the wake of Springsteen's blazing "Born to Run."
The Robbin Thompson Band's 1980 record "Two Bs Please" was as close as the singer came to the big time, with popularity reaching far outside his Southeastern base, powered by singles that got significant airplay. "Pulling into Chicago, we cut on the radio, and our song 'Brite Eyes' was playing," Roberson recalls. "Coming into an unfamiliar city, hearing your music, is a feeling you just can't describe," completes Antonelli. It's popularity crested near the top half of the Billboard top 100 rock album charts.
"We banged our heads against the wall," Robertson says. "Caught in the middle of record label power struggles, we came out on the losing end. We were on our own path, and they didn't know what to call us. Country? Hard rock? This was before Garth Brooks started to rock out in country shows, and they didn't know how to deal." It is the familiar music business story, except that was the beginning, not the end.
The band stayed together, playing concerts for longtime fans over the years. In 1990, with Carlos Chafin, Thompson founded In Your Ear, a jewel of a studio in Shockoe Bottom. "There were two Robbins," Robertson says. "Before he was a parent, he put on the whole rock star thing. Afterward, it was different. He got involved in the community, started doing things around town. Like all people, he evolved over the years."
The day Thompson died, Antonelli says, he got a call from Bill Reid, the area promoter behind the National who'd previously been the driving force behind the band's 30th anniversary live record and DVD, "The Robbin Thompson Band Live at the National."
"He said 'just bring some instruments to the stage and play,'" Antonelli says. "But we were still pretty knocked out at the time, but that was the start of this tribute."
Rather than the traditional approach of getting 15 bands to each record a song, they invited a tight group of singers with close ties to Thompson to perform with the band. "Everyone was a volunteer," Robertson says. "By the time it was over it was close to 200 people and nobody thought twice. One of the singers from Chicago offered to pay her own expenses. Studios gave us space to practice. The National went dark the Saturday night before for the singers to rehearse. The show was on Sunday night."
The recording captures the full concert, along with the last cut, the titular "Final Encore." It's a solid, midtempo country ballad about searching for solid ground, a place to build a life. There is an elegiac shadow cast by Thompson's long fight with a ceaselessly undercutting disease. The singer's voice and guitar, recorded as a demo, are stark and plaintive, the posthumous production rich and supportive. In a way, it is the tribute concert in miniature, a community of longtime collaborators coming together for a whistful, hard-rocking goodbye to an artist they all loved.
There is no ground more solid than that. S
From press release: To purchase the album online or learn more about the endowment, visit robbinthompson.com. The CD will be also be available at Plan9 Music and BK Music.