Simon Townshend Proves Who He Is
If not for the Who, Simon Townsend wouldn’t be here, nor would we. Even so, this 53-year-old singer presented an evening’s worth of original, acoustically played songs that have little to do with the Fatherband, although some of them would be at home in the large format. (If the Who provided the onramp to Townsend-the-Younger’s music, the road itself is his own.)
As an ancillary member of the Who, Townsend is one of four on stage who is not Roger Daltrey or his brother Pete, nor those who produce the sounds once originating from the band’s late rhythm section, Keith Moon and John Entwistle. On this night, however, he is in another space, standing alone on a small Seattle stage with an acoustic guitar array, playing the better part of two albums of recently released original material that, aside from some brotherly resemblance, isn’t particularly Who-ish.
On these records, the new Denial and last year’s Looking Out, Looking In, Townshend embraces melody and bright power chords. He can’t avoid looking or sounding like Pete, although his voice seems to have a bit more warmth. He’s enthusiastic about the songs, with good results, considering they sound a lot better with a full band backing. On the tour, which ends in Minneapolis on May 4, he deconstructs the songs from the recorded versions. So, we listen to them live and head home to build them back again.
Don’t take my word, try it for yourself. Townshend was pleased enough with the April 23 Triple Door performance, including a two-song Eddie Vedder guest spot, that he leaked an authorized bootleg of the entire show, available here. Most of us won’t spend a lot of time comparing the two. I still favor the studio versions as they’re a bit more invigorating, but the acoustic tapes will be in my rotation for a while. After all, I was there.
“If a song is a good one, you should be able to play it in its purest form, strip it down to its most basic elements,” he said. “You can get very complicated in recording but, in order to make a good recording, you need good raw material “
Townshend said that he’d love to travel with a band but it’s far more expensive and complicated than a solo tour, “and I have to make a living.”
In the old days, when giant bands walked the Earth, we always wanted more. The music, the concerts, and the personal interaction offered by the artists was never enough. After the Beatles fizzled, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves and clung to anything that was remotely related to them – Badfinger, Splinter… I even bought a record by Paul McCartney’s brother, of all people, and convinced myself that it was any good.
During Townshend’s Seattle sojourn, he bunked with Vedder, who strolled onstage toward the end of his set to sing two of Simon’s songs. “Simon is a great houseguest,” Vedder said. “If he comes back to town and I’m not here you should take him in.
Vedder also has a long history with the Who and has guested several times with the band; and he’s used to performing in front of large crowds. So it was great to watch both these guys when the pressure was off, since one guy with a guitar often has an I’m-just-playing-in-the-living-room quality.
There were a lot of video cameras at the show. A few days later, Townshend posted a video assembled from a few pro cameras combined with fan videos that had been uploaded to YouTube. According to a website, it “was pieced together on Final Cut Pro whilst sitting in airport lounges, on planes and in rental cars, etc. ” (It is viewable here.)
“I’ve had chances to play on the biggest stages and it gets pretty bloody hectic,” Townshend said. “It’s vast, intense and far less organized than what people would think. It seems to run on the edge. It’s a different experience, playing the smaller clubs. A lot of big bands like the Stones crave this opportunity. They perform in clubs on their off nights. But, when you play to the bigger places, you learn to connect; you need to learn how to reach the people in the back.”
But this night, in a club two-thirds full, it was pretty easy to reach the people in the back who would probably never get this close to the Who. More to the point, many of us would never even consider attempting to score a seat to a “bloody hectic” venue. It was a polite group, aside from a multitude of flashes and phones held aloft during Vedder’s visit, but no one was standing up blocking the view or shouting out for Who songs.
Even if you came for a Who fix, it was soon clear that none of the band’s songs really fit the format. Townshend has been known to throw in an occasional Who selection, but not overlapping the anthems played at Bloody Hectic.
On his last trip to town backing up Roger Daltrey, he soloed on “Going Mobile”, and some days might feature “The Dirty Jobs” – a deep Quadrophenia track that he does onstage with the Who.
You gotta love social networking, and the opportunities it provides to artists. Townshend has approached the limit of 5,000 friends and I’m one of them, reading his gleeful dispatches and seeing his unselfconscious fan pictures. Social networking is one place where you can easily fake sincerity, but Townshend seems to be having a good time.
“In the old days bands had so many outlets – radio and TV… That doesn’t exist today for artists like myself,” he said. “It’s a closed shop, so social networking is the only way I can reach out to people, I need to use the Internet to get out there.”
It goes both ways. The day after the show, Townshend posted a link to a review but took issue with its characterization of a “sparce crowd.” I read the somewhat amateur dispatch thinking he was using some obscure British spelling but it turned out the writer misspelled “sparse.” Maybe the idea that journalists need to pass a general usage test in order to report anything isn’t so dumb after all.
However, in this case, “sparse” has to do with expectations. About 170 people came out on a school night to hear these songs. That’s not a lot if you measure it against the per capita number of rabid Who fans. Townshend wrote that he was happy with the turnout, so maybe he wasn’t expecting all that much to begin with. Or maybe in this case, quality exceeds quantity. Either way, it was OK with me. I got to see a fine show up close that didn’t cost too much, and no one stood up to block the view.
Meanwhile, the Who is clearly winding down. There is talk of a “farewell tour” and, Simon said, maybe another album. Until they work out all the details Townshend will tend his own garden and report for duty when the call arrives. When asked whether the Who would ever play one of his songs, his response was immediate: “I’d love for that to happen one day. It would be an honor.”
You get the feeling this has been discussed at the highest level. Maybe there are rules that will prevent this occurrence, or perhaps it recalls how Al Jardine tried to sneak a few songs on the latest Beach Boys album, which Brian Wilson would not allow. Then again, maybe not; Pete has most of his wits left and Simon’s songs are about more than surf and sand.
But, if the Who was serious about stayin’ alive, they would embrace Simon as a full composing member. It would revitalize the band and bring it into the present, rather than being a dinosaur, or a battleship that needs a whole crew to even start their motor.
Quadrophenia aside, every Who album had at least a few John Entwistle songs to balance Pete Townshend’s gratifyingly narcissistic tendencies, so a few of Simon’s songs could provide the same relief, should there be a Who New. Pete’s been dawdling around with the idea of another Who album for years and even managed 2006’s Endless Wire which, despite a few high points, no one has ever referred to as a great album. When a machine loses a key part, like a singing, writing bass player, it needs a replacement or it won’t run as well as before. Or, maybe it’s better to just tour once more and pull the Dinosaur Battleship Who into dry dock. Their old albums are still wonderful, and it was fun to see Daltrey (with Simon) perform here a few years ago in a club only slightly larger than the one he played last week. When you stray from the records, old music isn’t all that gratifying unless there are new combinations.
Along with expectations, the secret word from Townsend’s Seattle show was limitations. Townshend’s solo performance enriches but it only goes so far, which became apparent when Vedder hit the stage. Solo work can often be narcissistic, but Townshend craves the interaction and comes alive when he’s playing with somebody.
While the flattening of available promotional music outlets has also flattened opportunities for emerging artists, it has changed things for the audiences as well. There are perhaps thousands of them that could be worth hearing. We need filters – recommendations on sites like No Depression help to narrow things down but it still can be a crapshoot.
So The Who becomes that filter. There is the notion that the siblings or spawn of the talented and famous have it a bit easier. If that’s true, they still have to work hard to keep our attention. We learned about Townshend because of his brother’s band, but we stayed to listen because the songs are great and the performance is engaging. And Denial is good enough that I broke down and ordered the vinyl version, which provides yet another compelling view of some really wonderful songs.