CEDAR RAPIDS (4-18-14)
“It as a bit larger earlier today…”Spoken by Simon Townshend as he reached for his mandolin, which looks very much like a miniature Gibson L-5.
It’s inevitable to compare Simon Townshend to his more famous older brother Pete. So here goes: They have the same accent. You can tell they listened to the same music growing up. They have similar gestures and motions while playing. They look like brothers, especially the eyes and ears. After that, Simon Townshend is very much his own man. I say this because, if you have never heard him, you might assume that musically he is riding on the coattails of The Who, or at least lurking in the shadow of that iconic group.
That would be terribly unfair to Simon, because even though he has collaborated with his brother and other members of The Who, , his talent as a singer, songwriter and guitarist stands on its own. I’ll admit I hadn’t listened to Simon Townshend enough prior to Friday nights concert to be able to name any of his songs or recognize them if I heard them on the radio. As I found out, there were others in the audience besides me who were not sure what to expect. I knew one thing for sure when I walked into CSPS hall and saw three acoustic electric guitars and a mandolin, with nary a Marshall amp (brother Pete’s standard) in sight: this would not be anything like a Who concert. I’m glad it wasn’t.
I took a liking to Simon before he even started playing, as he very humbly and humorously introduced himself and expressed his happiness at performing at CSPS Hall for the first time. It was, to the best of his knowledge, only his second time performing in Iowa. He wasn’t sure he had been here before until an audience member announced she had seen him in Iowa City about ten years earlier. Simon rips it up on guitar. He attacked his instrument with a passion that is almost animal-like in ferocity. Yet what came forth was a cascade of arpeggios, melodious licks and chords that create the aural impression that I was hearing more than just one man and an acoustic guitar. He goes at his playing with such intensity that he was constantly losing or breaking picks (but not any strings!). He started out the concert with eight picks on his mic stand. He went through them at a pace that left me wondering whether he would run out of picks before running out of songs. He had one pick left when he finished his encore.
His guitar playing is a perfect balance to his songwriting ability, as his tunes offer a combination of simple, catchy melodies with chord progressions that are for the most part straightforward, yet mixed in with some surprising twists and turns. Underneath it all you can tell he has a rocker’s heart, with honesty of lyric and the music being of the utmost importance. I especially liked his groove on “Time Bomb” a song off his latest album “Denial”. Simon, however, is not an acoustic folk artist. His album tracks are decidedly traditional rock, with a bit of pop and alternative elements thrown in. (It was an interesting experience to hear him perform unplugged, then listen to the full ensemble versions of his songs.) Armed with three acoustic guitars and a mandolin, Simon gave a concert that felt very much like an old MTV “Unplugged” show: Great, rocking tunes played solely on acoustic instruments, sans any effects, combined with soulful, from the heart ballads. One such ballad was “Denial”, the title cut from the album. A very personal and honest look at one aspect of addiction, it was one of many songs that revealed Simon shares the characteristics of the best songwriters, an ability to bring people into the foyer of their hearts, let them look into the living room and, if they dare, come in and have a seat. It’s not an easy thing to do, opening up one’s life through songs without being melodramatic or pretentious. Simon Townshend handles the task masterfully. Simon certainly performed like he was fronting a full rock ensemble. Lunging about the stage, leaning back and forth as he played certain riffs, he was certainly entertaining, even mesmerizing to watch. None of it was done with the sort of affected artificiality that some guitarists fall into on stage. By that I mean Simon let the music move him honestly, as opposed to resorting to theatrics simply for the sake of show. His passion for his music was infectious, and by the second set, the audience was getting rowdy (for CSPS Hall at least) on his uptempo songs.
When he finally performed a number I realized I was familiar with, his classic “I’m the Answer” the audience roared approval. By the end of the show, we had all been treated to 90 minutes of some of the most energetic performing I have seen.
After the show, Simon was especially gracious in signing autographs, posing for photos and talking with people.