Pop: Still a kid, and he's alright

PETE TOWNSHEND AND FRIENDS

SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE

LONDON

APART FROM a recent charity appearance for the Liverpool Dockers, and the odd showcase to launch the ill-fated Psychoderelict concept album, The Who's Pete Townshend hadn't played a solo concert in the UK for 12 years. Indeed, even his performances with extended line-ups of The Who have seen the former spokesman of his ge-generation resting on his laurels and presenting grandiose reprises of Tommy and Quadrophenia.

Away from the tyranny of the opus and the big stage production, Townshend and his very dextrous Friends (whizz-keyboardist Jon Carin, bassist Chucho Merchan, vocalist/guitarist Tracy Langran and Peter Hope-Evans on harmonica and Jew's harp) gave a marathon performance. "Unplugged with shades," said Pete, cherry-picking through his back pages from mod-swagger anthem "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" to solo material via choice covers.

Opting to play without a drummer (possibly a silent tribute to the late Keith Moon), and with 40 guests seated on stage, Townshend eased his way into "On The Road Again", evoking memories of Canned Heat's Woodstock appearance (like The Who's set, a defining moment). The touching "A Little Is Enough" flowed into a crowd-pleasing "Pinball Wizard", the guitarist's right hand a blur on his acoustic. Just as I was thinking of Townshend's limpid touch - the water in The Who's fiery combination of elements - he launched into the majestic "Drowned".

Townshend played up his local connection, namechecking old haunts like the Goldhawk Road, and joked that "some of us are old enough to admit that we're too old", before throwing some phallic guitar poses worthy of a teenage metal-freak. A poignant "Behind Blue Eyes" gave the audience the chance to indulge in some participatory singing, as if fostering the sense of community which was to have formed the core of Lifehouse (in 1971, this aborted project became Who's Next).

The Who could conceivably be cited as the main inspiration for punk, the mod revival and eventually Britpop, but adding impossibly-tall white rapper, Hame Clark, to the equation on Marvin Gaye's "Baby Don't You Do It", and a bloated "Who Are You?", proved the only slip-ups of the night.

Reverting to a more intimate setting, Townshend teased Eddie Cochran's "Three Steps To Heaven", which was neatly followed by the single entendre of "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand", while "Substitute" sent the crowd into paroxysms of delight. A charming rendition of the traditional "North Country Girl" also showed that, if he had forsaken The Who's macho camaraderie and exploited his plaintive vocal style, Townshend might well have gone on to become another Richard Thompson.

However, old habits die hard and, after a tender reworking of "The Kids Are Alright", The Who legend simply couldn't resist the temptation to windmill his way through "Won't Get Fooled Again", clipping a nail in the process and ebulliently overstressing the New Labour point in the climaxing "Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss".

This gig, and a benefit the following night in Truro, Cornwall, were mostly an excuse to enjoy a supreme songbook and will do for starters. But a nice collection of simple songs a la Empty Glass would be a great follow-up. Pete Townshend is growing old gracefully.

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