Photo & Story by Scott A. Smith
Pete Townshend. Joe Walsh. Ann and Nancy Wilson. Rick Derringer. All three guys in Rush.
As great as these rock icons sound on their respective studio recordings, it’s the concert stage that reveals all of the magical dimensions of their instrumental abilities.
The same can be said of drumming legend Chester Thompson, who has recorded and toured with a Who’s Who in Rock and Roll throughout the decades. Following a brief stint with drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson), Genesis hired Thompson in 1977 so drummer Phil Collins could take over the lead-vocal mic for a departed Peter Gabriel. Thompson’s impeccable, assertive drumming chops appeared on the such essential live Genesis LPs as “Seconds Out” and “Three Sides Live,” and his work with Santana, Frank Zappa, Collins’ solo band and Weather Report remain just as pioneering and ear-pleasing.
Thompson’s performance skills, today in 2015, have retained a sharpness in quality that continue to amaze and impress other musicians and casual viewers alike. His concert with his solo group, the Chester Thompson Trio, on Jan. 23 at the Blue Lion at UAFS Downtown in Fort Smith, allowed Thompson to continue his path full of staggering musicianship and important song-craft.
Flanked by keyboardist Joe Davidian and electric/acoustic bassist (and former Fort Smith resident) Michael Rinne, Thompson looked relaxed yet in command while sitting at a seven-piece drum set, inserting tasteful fills and wonderfully placed cymbal hits. As always, Thompson’s playing never disintegrated into over-cooking showmanship. It was the anchor for the trio, a pulse that purposely ebbed and flowed with the songs’ intentionally shifting tempos.
Early in the set, a jazzy reading of Genesis’ 1978 FM hit, “Follow You, Follow Me,” radiated from the three instruments. The crowd was vocal in their support between songs while remaining respectfully quiet when the on-stage music spoke. “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” Chic Corea’s “Matrix” and Weather Report’s “Black Market” helped add to a unique set list, as did Rinne’s original “Jay Waltz” and the Davidian-penned “Elation.”
It was downright striking how just a drum set, bass and piano ushered in such a big, full sound into the intimate, 200-seat theater. Thompson’s drum heads offered a rich, warm tone, much like Rinne’s dexterous bass work. Davidian rotated between piano and electric piano, piecing in some well-chosen sonic colors that enhanced the evening’s already chipper mood. (Rinne’s father, Henry Rinne, briefly guested on saxophone.)
No mistakes were detected in the three masters’ efforts in Fort Smith. Thompson and his comrades were tight in their togetherness, as all bands should operate, yet a playful vibe made numerous cameos on the stage. The three improvised with top-of-the-line skill, bouncing their playing off one another yet always ending up at the same place at each song’s conclusion.
The Fort Smith concert contained many flashes of brilliance, showing just why Phil Collins, Carlos Santana and Frank Zappa jumped at the chance to hire the terrific Thompson in the past. The gig also displayed just why Thompson himself recruited the equally outstanding Rinne and Davidian. All three musicians did the heavy lifting in Fort Smith, sounding like sonic superheroes still enjoying the ride.