Live at the Point – Townhall
Most bands dont release a two-disc live record as their debut album. Most
bands don’t start touring three months after their first gig. And most bands
dont follow up that debut with a "live in-the-studio" effort, nevermind hit
the studio a mere eight months after that initial release.
But most bands arent Townhall.
Live at the Point, released only eight months ago, is garnering a lot
of attention among fans – jamband and rock fans alike – and the mainstream
press despite its low key distrubution and lack of a major record label.
Sometimes a band’s music is so good, it doesn’t need to be forced on the
fans. The fans find it themselves. (And soon they’ll find the "live
in-the-studio album" which the group plans to cut soon.)
The Philadelphia-based quintet played 175 gigs in 2001, remarkably its first
year of existence. Live at the Point is an sonic document of one of
those gigs, recorded at The Point in Bryn Mawr, a Philly suburb.
Many bands together for decades wish they could sound like this.
Combining the rootsy songwriting of Counting Crows and Van Morrison with
free jazz influences, the hippie sensibilities of Rusted Root and funky,
loose arrangements, Townhall is probably considered a jamband because of the
artists it has opened for (moe., The Wailers, Deep Banna Blackout) rather
than its sound. That being said, this group can stretch out, and they show
it during extended drum breaks and instrumental improvisations.
But it is the songs that remain vital here. Many so-called jambands begin
their careers with a repertoire of jams without the songs to back them up,
and worry about the songwriting later. Not Townhall.
While each member – all trained as jazz majors as the University of the
Arts in Philadelphia – are great players, the songs and, more specifically,
the vocals take center stage. George Stanford (trombone, guitar, bass), Nate
Skiles (guitar, bass, trumpet), Tim Sonnefeld (bass, guitar, percussion,
dobro, banjo) and Mark Smidt (trumpet, percussion, bass flute) all sing, and
they do it well, both in lead and harmony situations. The vocals are soulful
and heart-wrenching, and the lyrics are thoughtful and more based on reality
and emotions than the goofball zaniness some young jambands write or wrote
Anchoring it all is drummer Kevin Pride. The band likes to shift gears
mid-song, and without Pride, it’d be a trainwreck. During one of the album’s
standout tracks, "Miss Saturday Night," which starts out as a soulful
ballad, Pride shifts the band into overdrive seamlessly, and a quick-paced
adventure ensues, complete with a flute solo. "Dont You Just" features funk
horns, and "Chevy" has a Grateful Dead-like guitar line, but the vocals are
still the main focus. "So Far" touches on reggae, and "Confusion", which
kicks off disc two, is reminiscent of Blind Melon and the Flaming Lips.
Sometimes, this group sounds what one dreams the Wallflowers or Counting
Crows may have sounded like if they never aimed to sell records. But despite
the diversity and propensity to attract discerning fans, there’s enough here
to hook fans with less high-brow tastes. Townhall doesn’t beat you over the
head with their jazz training. When Stanford picks up the trombone, it’s not
a case of "look at us, we can play any instrument". It’s simply good music
played well. That may be the secret to the buzz following the group.
If you want to be one of the hipsters saying "I saw Townhall before they
were big", you may be running out of time.