Martyrs, Chicago, 28/11/2012
published: 6 /
Lisa Torem watches singer-songwriter Simon Townshend play a stunning set to promote his new album ‘Looking Out, Looking In’at Martyrs in Chicago
Simon Townshend did something to this writer that has never happened before. He rendered me speechless during the first five minutes of his set. In fact, I’m still struggling to find words that adequately summarize the effect he has on an audience.
It’s hard to put into words but I’ll try. First of all, he has got a look made for the stage. Then there was that long scarf coiled around his neck, film noir shades and a lean physique that screamed Spiderman or maybe, “Simon, will you be my personal trainer?”
But beyond this mysterious persona lies a man who has forged an unbelievable connection to his life’s work. He is involved organically with his material, yet seems to feel a great commitment to his audience, in the way a caring crossing guard watches out for pedestrians. As a songwriter, his images are thought provoking and healing.
He began his set with ‘Electric Friend,’ a high-energy ballad from his brand new album, ‘Looking Out, Looking In’, which included forceful strumming and lyrics that danced: “I’ll carry you on my back just to have you here…” and then segued into the Olympian runs that accompany ‘Comeback.’
He followed that one with two more cerebral originals, the latter, ‘About Love’, was bound together by a cascading progression and a melody that ricocheted bullets. There was infectious movement in Townshend’s performance style - his entire body sizzled as he strummed, and then suddenly he would lose himself in the moment and lunge curiously forward like a Mack truck on a congested street.
‘She Asked Me’ was played more rapidly than on the recording, but it still featured the prominent riff that separated the verses and that contagious Celtic feel. Townshend’s vocals were clear and expressive. His voice is very comfortable to listen to and he demonstrated during the set that he can easily move from rock to folk. The extended chorus really gave us a chance to experience the tenderness of the lyrics, because when he used vowel sounds as a coda we could hear a pure and desperate ache.
He sang fervently in another new gem, ‘Making Waves’, in which this imagery appeared: “On a stormy sea is a recipe for making enemies of lovers.” The chord progression grew dissonant, dense with friction, jarring attacks and gentle arpeggios. He drifted seamlessly into falsetto,
Paul Weller inspired ‘All So Real’. He sang “It’s all a dream to me/So why is it so real?” I found myself pondering that throughout the next day.
The prettiest riff of the night award went to another new sonnet, ‘Bed of Roses,’ a song that is destined to be a classic. For that one, Townshend brought out his mandolin.
Little by little we got to see what made Simon tick – “I love playing new songs, but there’s always an element of risk,” he confided, and it seemed that he rarely missed a chance to include his loved ones as subject matter.
He added loss to the list of themes after admitting that a good friend had recently died of a heart attack. ‘Time Bomb’ contained threatening riffs, furious low tones and even some slide. The haunting lyrics reminded us that our well-planned lives could dangle by a thread at a moment’s notice.
More sensate images followed in ‘Bare Assets’, and then he performed another recently written song, the divinely romantic ‘Stay’ and the deeply emotional, not-as-yet recorded ‘Denial.’
Drawing on more of his life experience – for no one could feign the feelings Townshend displayed so genuinely – he drew us more deeply into his secret galaxy: “Time will heal the wounds of heartbreak/Heal the hurt of heartache/Time will be the healer….”
He finished with the title track of his current album, ‘Looking Out, Looking In,’ imploring phenomenal energy, while strumming frenzied, erratic riffs before playing the optimistic ‘Forever and a Day.’
Alone on the stage, without a net, Simon gave so freely of his emotions that the entire audience had inched up towards the front of the stage.
His encore consisted of two structurally strong numbers, ‘The Way It Is’ and the enigmatic ‘I’m the Answer’ from 1989’s ‘Animal Soup’. The set was very much appreciated and the audience might have stayed for hours in this beautifully decorated room, which was awash with twinkling blue holiday lights, but at the same time they were anxious to shake Simon’s hand and to get their CDs signed.
Like any grand moment in life, it all went by way too quickly. But Simon Townshend’s trajectory will be an enduring and enlightening one because he’s not only a phenomenal craftsman, but he has got quite a lot to say.
The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro.