I love to be pleasantly surprised. I have only seen the Who twice, once in ’89 and again at an exceptional show in 2000 in Denver with my buddy Stormin’. In ’89 they had a huge ensemble on stage with them and they were o.k. In 2000 it was just Daltrey/Townshend/Entwistle (RIP) with Zak Starkey on drums and a keyboard player. My general rule of thumb with the Who since that 2000 concert is simply, the less people they have on stage, the better the Who are. They are a primal force to be reckoned with.
I was supposed to see the Who in 1980 but due to some rather nefarious circumstances my father ended up confiscating my ticket and grounding me for a month. At the request of the guilty and my friend Brewster I can’t go into those details here. It has left a gaping hole in my concert-going experience that I will never be able to fill. Regardless of all that, I probably wouldn’t have attended this Who concert if a friend hadn’t given me two tickets on the floor. I love the Who but at this point, without Entwistle my expectations are pretty low. Couple that with Townshend’s continuing denunciations of touring and refusal to record any new music, and I just thought maybe it was time to cherish my memories of the Who but not invest the time in going to see them. As usual, I was wrong. Besides, free tickets, going with the Rock Chick and getting to see my pal SB and his brother Doctor Jimmy (names changed/obscured to protect the guilty) made this a no brainer.
I saw Bruce Springsteen interviewed a couple of years ago and he was talking about the guitar playing of Tom Morello. He said Morello, like Pete Townshend, could really create a “soundscape” with his guitar playing. That comment jumped out at me. I quickly put my iPod on shuffle and listened to the different stages of the Who’s career and damn if Springsteen wasn’t right. Townshend’s guitar playing is so distinctive I think we take it for granted. Before there was a Jack White, or an Eddie Van Halen or a Jimmy Page, there was Pete Townshend. The guy is simply masterful on his instrument. Yeah, the windmilling power chords are cool, but the guy bends the strings and pulls notes out of the guitar like a zen master. I had forgotten until seeing them last night what an amazing guitar player he is. He was playing up and down the neck of the guitar, dragging his pick over the strings and at one point used the mic stand to rub the guitar strings in a slide guitar solo. He put on a clinic. He alone was worth going to the show.
Townshend was in a funny and feisty mood last night. He did most of the in-between song patter with the audience. He made some pointed, humorous remarks about North Carolina’s ridiculous bathroom laws. He said, you never know which bathroom he might use, but if you were to come into said bathroom while he was in there, “you’d get to see the “Real Me,” well, depending on what you look like.” Funny stuff, Pete. Townshend reminds me of the odd uncle at the family reunion who the adults scorn but all the kids crowd around to listen to and hear in the hopes that he might say “fuck” in front of grandma again.
Daltrey was in fine voice and it was nice to see him fully recovered from the meningitis that sidelined him for the original date of this show, back in the fall. When Pete announced Daltrey during the band intro’s at the end of the show, he seemed to show some genuine affection for his old band mate and sincere relief that he’s fully recovered. Daltrey’s biggest vocal moment was during a powerful, emotional “Love Reign O’er Me.” Daltrey just nailed the vocal on that song. The rest of the band was fleshed out by the amazing drummer Zak Starkey, Pete’s brother Simon on guitar/vocals, groovy bassist Pino Palladino (who has the Entwistle “still as a statue” act down pat) and three keyboardist/backing vocalists. They utilized a lot of backing vocals which really enhanced the earlier Who material.
The show started with “I Can’t Explain” a favorite of mine but they were a tad sluggish. Things improved a little during the second song, “Who Are You.” It wasn’t until “The Seeker” that they seemed to click into gear. When they got into “The Kids Are Alright” the Rock Chick turned to me and said, “why would they play this one, it’s too pop…it’s not rocking’?” What does the Rock Chick not know about music. I thought things went up a notch a few tunes later when after a few misfires starting, Pete finally got the opening notes of “5:15” down. That song got the crowd really going.
Things continued to get better with a double dose from “Who’s Next,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Bargain.” They followed those tunes with an all time favorite of mine, “Join Together” and after that they were just on fire. They followed that up with a great version of “You Better You Bet” from my first ever Who LP purchase, “Face Dances,” an album I still love. Pete then announced they were going to do 3 songs in a row from their best rock opera, “Quadrophenia” and that trio of songs was the emotional center of the show. It began with “I’m One” during which Pete mentioned he noticed the “pensioners and older members of the crowd are sitting down.” Who knew Townshend was such a wise ass. The next “Quadrophenia” song was an instrumental “The Rock” that was powerful musically but made more so with the political imagery on the video screens behind them. That song led into the aforementioned “Love Reign O’er Me” that Daltrey just crushed. I let out an audible, “wow” after that.
They followed that up with a very muscular version of “Eminence Front” another fan favorite. The whole band kicked it into another gear on that song. “Dress yourself to kill” Townshend kept intoning passionately. He’s spoken in the past of his disdain for that song, but he sure looked like he was having a ball singing it. That led to a handful of “Tommy” tunes which were amazing to behold. They finished things up with “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” where Daltrey again nailed the loud scream at the end… the chick in front of me, who despite being older than I am danced her ass off all night, turned to me after Daltrey’s scream and said, “He nailed it!” Indeed. I have to agree with SB when we spoke after the show that “Won’t Get Fooled Again” just seems to get more relevant and more true with each passing year. It’s a shame nothing has changed in the 45 years since the Who recorded it.
After the show, SB and Doctor Jimmy, the Rock Chick and I convened at our favorite post-concert bar, the Drum Room and over martini’s discussed what we’d just seen. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “shit, I almost skipped this.” If you’re out there and you’re on the fence about going to see a band, any band, always make the effort and go. Especially make that effort if it’s a legend like the Who. There’s a reason these people are legends. They continue to put on exceptional live shows. I can only hope that Townshend relents and takes the fire he showed on stage into a studio with Daltrey. I think they’ve got some songs left to sing and some more things to say.
If the Who come to your town, do yourself a favor and get out and see them. Short of that, get to a bar tonight and catch a live band, it’ll get your heart pumping.