While TV Land relies on nostalgia junkies and devotees-in-waiting, VH1 uses hits as a divining rod to social activism. Townshend, facing as worshipful an audience as any star is likely to find, turns his own nostalgic appeal into a very specific portrait rather than a random grab bag of songs. With a three-ring binder of song sheets instead of a set list to guide his show, he told the audience at the second show Monday, “I don’t take suggestions. If it’s not in the book, I don’t play it.”
In celebrating his past as well as his early influences, Town-shend provides a glimpse of himself today as a casual rocker — substantiated by his black-suit-and-sandals ensemble — willing only to work within his limits, yet still able to paint an engrossing mural. This night, Townshend showed his affinity for songs of love and friendship and a particular fondness for the music of “Quadrophenia.” Rather than just stand up and play the tunes the way he remembers them, Townshend has adapted his attack on the guitar and piano to flesh out the sound in most cases, and rough it up on others.
What Townshend’s show Monday lost in time (about 80 minutes compared to the nearly two-hour round one), he more than made up for by making song selections quickly from the binder. While he promised to deliver the same show, including “the same Rod Stewart joke,” he gave it a bluesier shade, dropping the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You” for Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind,” Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” with a wacky little Chopin interlude, and, most expertly executed, Mose Allison’s “If You Live.”
The rest of the romp was a straightforward support of the concept — if not the actual songs — of Atlantic’s just-released “best of” compilation. He started with a breezy “Let My Love Open the Door” and, except for a song from the overlooked classic “Rough Mix,” stuck with the familiar and avoided the overplayed (i.e., anything from “Tommy” or “Who’s Next”).
No one among the packed faithful showed any concern for the absence of any of Town-shend’s characters — think about it: does anyone really need to hear “Pinball Wizard”? Well-executed nostalgia it is — and it’s a long way from TV Land.