The familiar guitar figure dances nimbly across the entry to the song. Richard Thompson has played "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" in virtually every concert since its release on 1991's Rumor and Sigh. But the audience members caught on this bootleg recording, from a 1999 London appearance, don't greet the opening riff with the enthusiasm typical of American crowds. At first, this difference seems strange: Thompson has rarely been more English than he is here, referencing a specific motorbike not generally sold on this side of the pond. The tale is modeled on old English folk songs, the oft-repeated story of a woman's being drawn to a flashy young outlaw who dies because he can't give up his ne'er-do-well ways. So why does it resonate so much with Americans? Molly is nothing more than "red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme" to James, whereas she thinks "a girl could feel special on any such" bike. James tells her up front he's a bad egg, that he's "robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine." Once they're together, though, she merely has to wait for him to be shot in a robbery gone wrong before he hands over the keys, telling her with his last breath that he has "no further use" for them. Thompson's guitar figure is a stroke of genius, a simple rhythm picked on the higher frets that reflects the distant roar of a motorbike engine at the same time it drives the song to repeated releases of tension. Each time Thompson returns to it, the listener experiences the same freedom that the Vincent implies for Red Molly. English listeners expect something stoic from their folk musicians, even the ones who long ago moved to the rock & roll side. They want to hear about the twists of fate that seem inevitable, the ways in which men and women are destined to dance the same steps across the generations. Thompson, despite an underrated sense of humor, has written some of the gloomiest songs of the last 30 years. But this one time, he went out of his way to suggest a path out of fate's grasp, a belief that an encounter between two people might lead to something beyond their expected doom, at least for one of them. American audiences want to believe, despite Thompson's warning in a song 25 years ago, that there's something at the end of the rainbow.
When he plays the opening runs to "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," there will be no silence at the Pageant on Sunday night.