published: 22 /
Super talent Simon Townshend played a generous set of his classics as well as tracks from new album, ‘Denial’ at Chicago’s Martyrs
“I’ll be playing a paid gig in a small band tomorrow,” Simon Townshend joked, while fine-tuning one onstage axe. He was performing a proper Tuesday night set on the eve of The Who’s appearance at the Rosemont Horizon.
Besides maintaining a demanding solo career, the British singer-songwriter has been second guitarist/vocalist in The Who since the late ‘90s, but the fact that he comes from the legendary Townshend clan seems like a liner note tonight. It’s Simon Townshend’s new album, ‘Denial’, that’s spurring a buzz.
Townshend has gigged at Martyrs since 2012, each time wooing more and more new fans through word-of-mouth militia. And at each performance, more and more faces register delight when he strums the opening bars of a passionate ballad or rocker; his originals have become spiritual yardsticks, reminders that true art forces us to grow. Some people arrive together and others file in, alone, supremely confident that they’ll run into old friends that they met at a former Simon Townshend set.
In marketing terms that process might be called “building a brand”, but Simon Townshend’s career seems to have evolved organically, naturally. He is old school in the sense that he has an amazingly strong work ethic and DIY mentality. At each Who show, for example, he greets the fans before the concert and signs CDs. He asks for little from anyone at his solo shows. There’s no guitar tech handing him his tools. He’s a one-man band because he can be. Writing, singing, modulating, exalting, venting…he is simply a great showman. And even before the story unfolds, even when he tunes his mandolin or six-string, he chases you into the white-hot heat of each tale, regaling the blisters, blemishes and soaring heights of his offstage life.
He launches into a biting version of the first ‘Denial’ track, ‘Mother’, and the title immediately makes you scratch your head. After all, many of his songs are about romantic relationships, hard times and loss. Yet this new theme works, too. It’s got that edge to it that Simon has become known for.
He tells me later in an interview that he imagined the song being written from his daughter’s point of view. On the record, Hannah adds her pure, undistilled harmonies. In person, alone, Simon shows off his multi-octave register with amazing clarity and depth.
He brings you there, to his very intimate space. When he sings ‘Leaving This Town’, you can visualize a harried drifter, stuffing T-shirts into a rucksack and leaving a scribbled note on the kitchen counter; a modern-day Jimmy Webb character.
Vampy ‘About Love’ is double-edged: skeptical and cautionary, yet hopeful. He appeased the true romantics with the jazz-fringed reflections of ‘All So Real’ and leveled the field with existential ‘The Way It Is’.
The serenity shifted once he plunged into the haemorrhaging bass line of ‘Time Bomb’, worth the price of admission alone for the fever pitch. It’s about the loss of a friend; somehow he translated what must have been unimaginable grief into this hypnotic progression. Another mood shift brought us ‘Stay’, a lovely tribute to his wife.
Rousting, ringing out the thin notes of his mandolin, he strummed ‘Bed of Roses’, a satiny and cinematic lover’s lament.
I found myself drifting into a renaissance world when Simon sang ‘Bare Essence’ because it’s such a palpable, unpolluted piece. When he gently parsed out the phrases, “My body, my bare essence," the soft, delicate features of a Florentine face came to mind.
‘Denial’ was a fusion of ferocity and compassion. It’s also a vocal masterpiece, with a soaring crescendo. With smouldering expressiveness and kinetic energy, Townshend held nothing back.
‘Heal’ and ‘Looking Out Looking In’ were more sunny, yet his jackhammer shredding kept tension in the air. And there were more reasons to remain at the edge of the bar stool: rumours had been surfacing that a surprise guest, a former Chicagoan, would be coming onstage--fans were already creeping closer to the stage in anticipation.
Then, bam! Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) hopped up onstage after an abbreviated but warm introduction--“He’s really famous…” The sun-tanned singer, dressed in a three-piece suit, could have been mistaken as a wedding crasher as Townshend, like most of the audience, was dressed informally.
Vedder and Townshend dished out velvet harmonies. The former manned several verses of ‘She Asked Me’ and ‘I’m The Answer’. It was exciting to hear the vocal parts shared. It’s easy to imagine Simon Townshend songs becoming fixtures in the Great American Songbook. They’re well structured, singable and straight from the heart. His finger-style picking and intrepid pull-offs enhance his lyrics. But hearing these one-man ballads reimagined as duets opened up another door.
The two were having the time of their lives. Then, bam - it was over. Before Vedder left, he expressed what we’d been feeling, too: “Simon makes cathartic music.”
‘Forever and a Day’ has a mellifluous, lilting melody. With a natural ear for string/vocal arrangement, Townshend economized each acoustic phrase. The encore included sonorous ‘Ecstasy Heaven’, and after a brief coda he signed autographs and posed for shots. Simon’s a one-man band because he absolutely can be, but when company appears in the form of a famed singer, he’s quick to shift gears and fully engage.
Leaving This Town
All So Real
The Way It Is
Bed of Roses
Looking Out Looking In
She Asked Me (w/Eddie)
I’m the Answer (w/Eddie)
Forever and A Day
Photos by Philamonjaro