It's hard to say just what was more entertaining when 80-year-old St. Louis blues pianist and guitarist Henry Townsend performed at Baird Auditorium on Sunday night: his alternately brooding and rollicking compositions, his still impressive gifts as a singer, or the amusing anecdotes he used to lighten and punctuate the evening.
Either way, it added up to a thoroughly enjoyable performance by a man largely unknown outside hard-core blues circles, despite an extensive recording career reaching back to the '20s. Townsend played accompaniment for most of his professional life, so it was a particular treat to hear him not only robustly revive his own songs and several standards at the piano but also sing the lyrics with renewed conviction. What was supposed to be a series of piano and guitar duets, however, was effectively reduced to a string of solo arrangements when the sound mix failed to amplify Leroy Pierson's guitar properly.
Pierson, a protege of Townsend, Son House and Fred McDowell, opened with an eclectic set of finger-style and slide blues in regular, dropped D and Spanish tunings. Although he deftly handled the genial blues of Mississippi John Hurt and others, he got the most out of his National steel guitars when he played darker, more percussive tunes with fingerpicks or a bottleneck.