Burlington singer-songwriter Lowell Thompson can heat up a room no matter what the temperature is outside. Case in point: his recent appearance as part of a March residency at Red Square. Over the course of three sets, Thompson, backed by his regular band - guitarist Bill Mullins, drummer Steve Hadeka and bassist Kirk Flanagan - transformed a sub-zero Monday night gig into a sweaty alt-country hoe-down worthy of a more temperate town like, say, Austin, Texas.
Mullins colored the edges of Thompson's rugged ditties with choice country-rock licks while Flanagan and Hadeka provided a surefooted backbeat. Their front man displayed his customary laid-back cool - a combination of true grit a nd genuine, aw-shucks humility. Thompson's singing was broad and true, with none of the breathy affectations so common to many of today's crooners. He also showed he knew his way around the guitar, complementing Mullins' finger-flash with a graceful style of his own. The medium-sized audience was sparser than the throng Thompson typically pulls into Club Metronome on more temperate evenings, but the crowd seemed exhilarated nonetheless.
Hot-shit shows are common when Thompson plays with this seasoned musical crew. But he's also an engaging solo performer who's no stranger to the open mike and coffeehouse circuit. It's not uncommon to see his name pop up several times in the club listings of this very paper - go ahead, take a peek. Better yet, catch one of his gigs, and enjoy some romantically twangy originals delivered in a refreshingly down-to-earth style.
The 26-year-old singer-guitarist didn't exactly expect to be strumming the strings of heartache - at least not back when he was a teenage rocker worshiping at the altar of post-punk heroes Fugazi. "I started playing guitar the summer before my freshman year in high school," Thompson says. "I started a band pretty quickly; it was a punk-rock kind of thing called Cereal. We'd bang out Circle Jerks songs, some Rancid. I didn't know much about playing, but it was great."
Thompson might not have gotten started in music at all if not for his parents, avid listener-collectors who also dabbled on acoustic. "I learned my first chords on my mom's classical-style guitar," says the Burlington native. "And my dad had this insane record collection. He actually bought me my first Dead Kennedys album, because he knew I was getting into that stuff."
Another interesting Thompson tidbit: he's named after the late leader of Little Feat, Lowell George. "My parents were big Little Feat and early Bonnie Raitt fans," Thompson relates. "The first concert I remember going to was when my dad took me to see Elvis Costello. I was really young; maybe 5 years old. I just remember Elvis had this giant wheel that he'd spin to choose what songs to play."
An auspicious start for a would-be songsmith, but it took a while for these formative experiences to manifest into a musical career. So how did Thompson make the transition from raucous punker to introspective troubadour? A period of self-imposed isolation helped him uncover his inner songwriter. "I took a year off after high school and moved to Colorado in 1998," he says. "I didn't have a set group of people to relate to, so it gave me time on my own. That's when I really started to get into writing." His tastes in music soon expanded beyond the fast and loud. "I found myself getting into Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Gram Parsons records, which I didn't really like when I was younger, because I wasn't as into lyrics."
Once he started paying more attention to words, Thompson found himself drawn to Jeff Tweedy, the front man of alt-country/experimental pop act Wilco. "I felt like I could really identify with his writing," he offers. "Another thing was the vocals. I never really thought of myself as much of a singer, but just to hear such an honest-sounding voice gave me confidence."
Around the same time, Thompson had his mind blown at a concert by Americana icons Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. "It really screwed me up in a good way," he says. "Rawlings' playing is almost disturbing, it's so perfect. And both of them are just so in tune with the songs."
Eventually, college beckoned Thompson back to the Green Mountains, where he attended the University of Vermont on a lacrosse scholarship. In between his sporting activities, he managed to bone up on political science and English. "I actually did really well in school, which I wouldn't have had the chance to do had I not played lacrosse. But towards the end, I was skipping practice to play music."
Following graduation in 2003, Thompson again caught the travel bug. So he headed to Lake Tahoe in California, where he hung with friends and took his first stabs at live performance. "I was playing a couple of open mikes there, and it was one of the scariest things I've done in my life," he recalls. "I'd pound, like, six beers before I'd go on, and I'd be so nervous I wouldn't even feel them." But audiences - however small - responded well, and he kept at it. Says Thompson, "People there seemed really into songwriters. They were very respectful."
Thompson had the opportunity to open for a popular local act while on the West Coast, but he found himself back in Burlington in summer 2004. He started putting the finishing touches on a bedroom recording he'd begun back in college; eventually it would be released as his debut EP. To make a living, he took a job painting houses, where he met his future lead axe man Mullins.
Another painter friend signed Thompson up for Advance Music's Acoustic Guitar Summit, an annual contest for area pickers and songwriters. Much to his own surprise, he took the crown. "I hadn't really been playing in front of people since I got back in town, so that was pretty scary, too," Thompson says. "I didn't know what to expect; I figured I'd just play a couple of my songs and see what happened."
What happened was free studio time - one of a handful of prizes Thompson received for winning the contest. He drafted a quick pick-up band, including Hadeka and Mullins, and entered Egan Media in Colchester to knock out some tunes. "I'd been in awe of Bill's playing for a while, and never had any idea that I'd be able to get him for a recording," Thompson says. "But he was psyched to do it, and we've been together since then."
His current band features three of the musicians he tracked with, something Thompson is proud of. "It's so cool for me to have guys this good, especially after having played solo for so long," he enthuses. Hadeka is pleased with the situation as well. "Lowell's a lot of fun to work with," offers the in-demand drummer. "He's super-humble and doesn't make you feel like he's necessarily the leader."
In a world practically crawling with singer-songwriters, it takes more than catchy tunes and a pretty face - both of which Thompson possesses - to impress jaded audiences. His ace in the hole is his earnest vibe and easygoing demeanor. When asked how his work compares to that of other musicians, Thompson demurs. "I'm not sure there's anything special about what I do, and I was really reluctant to share my songs for a long time," he says. "Then I realized there's something so cool about exposing your vulnerabilities to an audience. Either they can identify with it or they can't. But I think it's worth doing."
Hadeka has a good idea why people respond to Thompson's music. "In the end it all boils down to the songs," he says. "Lowell has the rare ability to write accessible tunes with substance and honesty. If you know Lowell, and you read his lyrics, it all makes sense. Some performers get on stage to say, 'This is what I can do.' Lowell gets up there and says, 'This is who I am.'"
Thompson's tunes typically employ first-person narratives, but not all of the tales are autobiographical. "It's more of a feeling thing," he says. "It might start out as about someone or something, but then it can branch out into all kinds of different themes. I like songs with real settings, and I think it helps to keep things as honest as possible. I know that's what gets me with other songs. I don't need to know the entire context; it can be one little line that makes me wanna just cry."
There are a few "little lines" in Thompson's own tunes that could provoke that very reaction. "Anna," the excellent opening track on his self-titled full-length, paints a semi-tragic picture of an exasperated lover: "Anna, don't listen if I kick and scream at night outside your door," Thompson sings in his plain-but-tender timbre, "Anna, don't kiss him just to prove that you don't love me anymore." It's simple, affecting stuff, wrapped in yearning pedal steel and heartfelt twang. You'd have to be made of stone not to feel something.
Audiences clearly do. One thing immediately noticeable about Lowell Thompson shows is the balanced ratio of male and female attendees. It's easy to see how his candid croon might win him attention from the ladies, but the dudes dig him, too. "I try to write stuff from a down-home perspective, that people can latch on to," Thompson explains. Could be he's found an equitable mix of the sweet and the rockin' that appeals to fist-pumpers and romantic introverts alike.
Being handsome probably helps, too. But Thompson is quick to dismiss any suggestions of sex-symbol status. "I'm trying to stay away from that," he says. "There are certain aspects of that 'singer-songwriter' thing that I don't wanna get trapped by. I never thought of myself like that, and the most important thing to me is to write songs that I can look back at years later and still like them. That's pretty much it."
But success could come knocking sooner than later - Thompson and his group have already played some out-of-state shows with Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, the enormously popular Waitsfield act recently signed to a national label. The exposure is great, and so is the camaraderie between the bands. "They're good friends of ours," Thompson says of GP&N. "It's cool to watch how they do things, 'cause it's obvious they're having a really good time."
Apparently he's being watched right back - here's Potter's quote in Thompson's official bio: "His sound and stage presence makes you stop talking and want to find out who the hell he is," she proclaims.
A strong endorsement, for sure, but it's not the only one Thompson has received from a well-established peer. Brett Hughes, the leader of country-rockers Chrome Cowboys and the host of Radio Bean's long-running Honky Tonk Sessions, has nothing but praise for the younger musician. "Lowell has songs in his pocket lint that are probably better than any of the crop of bands out there waving the alt-country crying towel," he says. "They sneak up on you and all of a sudden you catch yourself singing along. I'm gonna kidnap that little bastard and steal all his songs."
Thompson appreciates the support, musical and otherwise. "Having watched these other bands, it's just great to be involved and working with some of those people. At first I thought they'd be unapproachable, but now I've found out that they're doing it just to be playing, which is a great way to be."
Whether with his band or solo, Thompson continues to forge ahead. But he has a clear preference for how he wants his tunes to be voiced. "Working with the full band is the best thing ever. Things that should rock, do. I don't see many downsides."
That doesn't mean you won't still be able catch him, sans accompaniment, at a venue near you. Does Thompson ever foresee a day when he won't be playing as many gigs as he does now? "I don't wanna wear out my welcome, obviously," he says. "But for me, it's just a good time. I'd much rather put my efforts into this than anything else." If hard work truly is its own reward, Thompson is already well compensated. But chances are, there's more gravy on the way.