As a member of bands like The Hi-Risers, The Essentials, The Hillbilly Moon Explosion, The Locusts, The Salamanders, and most recently Los Straitjackets, there are clearly many sides to guitar master Greg Townson. But the two sides I want to focus on here are the competing instrumental and vocal foci of his brilliant solo catalogue. Townson’s got six solo albums by my count, three with vocals and three without. They’re all great but each side offers up particular and unique delights. Townson can sing! And he plays a mean guitar. If you’ve been missing some heartfelt jangly-twang guitar and a singer with a Nick Lowe kind of stylistic song range, then nothing less than both sides of Greg Townson will do.
Townson kicked off his solo career with two vocal albums, 2013’s On Your Side and 2016’s My Friend The Night. On both records it’s hard to put your finger on his vocal style. Yes, it’s very Nick Lowe at times and yet it’s also reminiscent of a distinctive 1960s American folk pop vibe you can hear on deep cuts from The Cyrkle or Every Mother’s Son. More recent acts I’d associate Townson with might be Tommy Sistak, The Decibels or Michael Shelley. You can judge for yourself with delightfully breezy cuts like “The Instruments Agree” or the more folkie lounge balladeering of “I’ll Wait for You,” both from On Your Side. My Friend the Night blows this winning formula wide open, expanding the range of styles on offer. “The Opinion Page” is a full on Rockpile-esque workout with an inventive lead guitar instrumental break. “These Shoes of Mine” is a pretty little song marked by a tender vocal and some absolutely killer acoustic guitar playing. From there Townson offers up a Ventures-worthy cover of “Linus and Lucy,” the Nick-in-lounge-mode ballad “Oldest Trick in the Book,” and a time-capsule performance on “You Can’t Stop Time,” a western country-ish tune in that 1950s Capitol records style.
The instrumental side of Townson’s album releases begins in 2017 with Travelin’ Guitar. Everything about this record is right out of 1960s guitar-instrumentals-albums central casting. From obligatory classics of the genre like “Fishin’ Hole,” to inspired yet unusual choices like the “Jaws” theme, to loving covers of vocals classics like “You Send Me,” Townson hits all the marks. But the standout track here for me is actually a digital bonus cut, the inspired cover of The Smith’s “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Amazingly Townson manages to render Morrissey’s anguished vocals via his emotive lead guitar lines with a brilliant aplomb. 2019’s More Travelin’ Guitar faces the challenge of making the familiar new again by reinventing hits like “Venus,” “Day-O” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Just listen to what he does with Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” balancing some expressive lead guitar work against a gently driving rhythm guitar feel, or check out his version of the wartime classic “We’ll Meet Again” where his guitar playing transforms a sad sounding song into something more peppy and joyous.
The vocals are back on 2020’s Just Name It, a collection of tunes that effectively showcase Townson’s low-key Nick Lowe/Buddy Holly-ish vocal demeanor, elevated by his distinctive lead guitar touches. It’s all there on opening cut “My Telescope.” The intro guitar lines are like brush strokes on a painting, the vocals light and sprightly. Or there’s the old rock and roll sound-made-new on tracks like the Dave Edmunds-infused “We Tied One On” or the jazzy cabaret vocal style of “If You’re Not in Love.” My vote for single would be the rhythm-guitar hooky “Square One.” In 2021 Townson switched back to instrumental mode with the creative Off and Running. Taking the idea of an instrumentals album in a new direction, the focus is entirely on hits by women from the 1960s – and what a cavalcade of offbeat hits he’s gathered here. There’s obvious hits (Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”) as well as lesser known gems (Lesley Gore’s “Off and Running,” Dusty Springfield’s “Little by Little,” and The Pleasure Seekers’ “What a Way to Die”). Whether taking on obscure numbers like “Action Line” from harpist Dorothy Ashby or a monster chart hit “The Locomotion” by Little Eva Townson manages to add his own special guitar something.
Do you need a musical pick me up? The two sides of Greg Townson will put a smile on your face and kick in your step (onto the dance floor). Catch up on his catalogue on Bandcamp and keep up with his antics on Facebook.
Photo by Fank De Blase, originally featured in Rochester City News