Pete Townshend Expands His Musical Explorations for All the World to See
Any time Townshend dances, which happens frequently and enthusiastically here, the preposterousness comes out.
Face the Face: Pete Townshend's Deep EndLabel: Eagle Rock Entertainment
US Release Date: 2016-09-16
UK Release Date: 2016-09-16
The mid-'80s were a curious time for Pete Townshend's artistic life after he had come out of a dark personal period. Between the breakup of the Who with the 1982 farewell and the 1989 start of the perpetual reuniting (not forgetting the 1985 Live Aid reunion), Townshend was fully focused on his maturing solo career. After the complex and awkwardly named All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, Townshend released his concept album White City: A Novel, his first truly post-Who work. His reach remained long: the album tied into a story as well as an hour-long film.
Late in 1985, then, it was time to hit the road, but Townshend skipped the power-trio rock arrangement for a big band sound, putting horns, multiple percussionists, and five back-up vocalists into a group called Deep End. The group played a number of shows and, while it could have ended up a bloated mess, the performances mark a nice shift in sound for the middle of that non-Who era, feeding Townshend's desire for something new, chasing expanded musical explorations, and most important, giving strong performances for new and old songs.
The new DVD/CD Face the Face captures one of these 1986 performances, a somewhat shorter concert for the TV show, Rockpalast. The set shouldn't be confused with the more famous Brixton performances, and fans will be happy to note the setlist varies from the older Deep End Live! album. Townshend and his band, including Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, run through old Who cuts, standards, and new releases, including the then-current single “Face the Face”. The show's artfully put together, highlighting the band's work, which ended shortly after this show, despite many of the players returning to work with Townshend or the Who for decades.
The show reveals the mix that makes Townshend lovable in his quirky way (assuming you find him so). Throughout the concert, he approaches the show as he always seems to have approached rock, as if the whole thing's absolutely ridiculous, and simultaneously the most important thing in the world. Any time Townshend dances, which happens frequently and enthusiastically, the preposterousness comes out. At the same time, every word matters, except possibly on the title track, which has always felt more like playing with words that have both a noun and verb form. “Give Blood” may feel overearnest, but it also feels charged. “The Sea Refuses No River”, for all its artsy pomp, speaks to deep matters, and the band renders it as a profound comment.
That said, it's a rock show. It's fun. Townshend carries that feeling throughout, even as he highlights his more adult numbers. “Pinball Wizard” makes its requisite appearance, but the concert is about figuring out how to create a rock catharsis while embracing a track like “Slit Skirts”. These are numbers that you shouldn't get into until your midlife crisis, yet plenty of us found them oddly rewarding at younger ages. Townshend knows how to merge the Who's Next-era songs like “Won't Get Fooled Again” with the meditative heartbreakers like “After the Fire”.
That's what Townshend's writing has always done: laughed at itself, broken things, and found a way to have a good sit with someone who needs it (see Bill Heavey's remarkable article on loss and grief). All of that's here, and if there are a few stumbles, forgotten lyrics or the strained vocals of “I Put a Spell on You”, it's part of the deal.
To end the show with a lengthy rendition of “Night Train” makes perfect sense in its absurdity. After an evening of going through a Townshend pop-art big-band look at his body of work, of course he's going to conclude with a shimmy of R&B vamp that's totally out of touch with the rest of the night. Doing so lets a bunch of musicians do that thing that musicians do. If it's part of an ambitious project of grandiose silliness, so much the better.