A nice kitschy title for the most recent, maybe last, tour of the Who, one which comes at the heels of the seminal band’s 50th anniversary, and wherein they ”play the hits.” The Who, after a delay a several months, made it to the Oakland Arena here in the San Francisco Bay Area last week on May 19, 2016. The delay was due to health issues with singer Roger Daltrey, which involve his voice, limiting his ability to sing on consecutive nights, causing quite a logistical challenge during the tour, and a long delay of our show due to a resulting shuffle in the schedule.
The show was fabulous, despite Daltrey’s evident struggles with the vocals. The large backing band were all singers as well as instrumentalists, and they helped immensely with multi-part harmonies and solid backing vocals, particularly during tracks like the opener “Who Are You,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and “I Can See for Miles.” Daltrey covers his parts as best you can imagine, often nailing even a high gruff note, while at times needing to hang back in the mix a bit. Though he now struggles during challenging passages, he is still in fantastic shape, a real inspiration for clean living and fitness! I read that Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder stood in for Daltrey at an event in Chicago, and that he directly sought out Daltrey at the end of the long set. He told the legendary vocalist that he could not fathom how the man ever delivered those vocals throughout the very long tours the Who staged over the years, so challenging was it to hit those notes on just one night. Sweet thing to say, and one can imagine how true it is, given the experience of all us fans, and our flawed attempts over the years to sing along! Townsend still hits his vocal marks quite well, though at bit gruffly as during “The Acid Queen,” but perfectly well on “Eminence Front.” His guitar technique is immaculate, and though he understandably does not leap into the air as in times past, he still executes his windmill-arm attack on the frets mightily. And he has attitude to spare.
The backing band is filled with a who’s who of stellar musicians. Townsend’s son Simon plays guitars, Pino Palladino plays the bass, Loren Gold and John Corey are on keys all led by musical director Frank Smiles who adds more keys (did the Who really have that many keys on the albums?) and assorted instruments, including very strong backing vocals. Critically, Ringo’s son Zak Starkey played drums, and while no Keith Moon (who is?) he did an amazing job of interpreting and covering some of Moon’s most roiling, propulsive leads. As any fan knows, Moon used to play with almost reckless abandon, seldom pinning down a beat with single snaps of the snare, instead nearly always substituting a roll where others would place a note. He was one of the greatest drummers on the planet, maybe the best rock drummer ever (okay, right next to Bonham?), and it’s impossible not to miss him, even though we’ve had nearly 40 years to get used to the fact. Nonetheless, Starkey was top of his class and his assertive and stylized playing hit the marks as well as any drummer imaginable, a truly worthy heir.
Due to circumstances, poor timing and other factors, I’ve never seen the Who. Back in the day I was drunk on complex progressive rock, and prioritized concerts by Genesis, Yes, Tull and others given limited budgets. In retrospect, the Who’s music edged into that progressive category, as even though their focus was dead-on rock ‘n’ roll, their compositions were deceptively complex, the musicianship and vocals driven and unrelenting in their sheer power and audacity. Besides The Pretty Things’, SF Sorrow, Townsend’s masterwork Tommy was one of the first long form rock operas, certainly affording him and the band a place at the pinnacle of rock god heroism.
Alas, as I recently shared within these pages, Tommy both excited, and repelled me, particularly after viewing Ken Russell’s love-it-or-hate-it movie version of the album. I realized recently that all my friends had the soundtrack alum to the movie, and it crowded out the memories I had of the original Tommy cassette tape I played endlessly at ten years of age. I recently rediscovered the album and it’s charms, and the story behind it, influenced by Eastern philosophy much as my brother was at the time, as soon after this album’s release he left home to go into seclusion, and become a monk in the Self Realization Fellowship church. Townsend plowed serious ground with Tommy, arguably more personally and more effectively invoking a spiritual story than any of his counterparts including the Beatles who touched on these themes though never as expansively. And, in case you’ve forgotten, there is an almost complete lack of shrieking vocals or angry guitar on the album, quite unlike the movie soundtrack. Townsend primarily plays acoustic guitar, and clear, clean electric while he and Daltrey sing through relaxed vocal cords, innocence and emotions laid bare. Add to that Entwistle’s natural ability to lead or color everything he touched, and Moon’s unrelenting rolls, and the result is an album that is fresh, impactful and eminently listenable, particularly as an adult — it’s simply a masterpiece.
Not surprisingly for me then, the Tommy segment of the “Who Hits 50!” tour was most compelling to me. The set kicked off with “Amazing Journey,” and continued through the instrumental masterpiece “Sparks,”(go straight to your stereo and spin that track if you have at all forgotten what an incredible piece of music that is!) then “The Acid Queen” (one of the tracks I felt ruined in the film by Tina Turner!), ‘Pinball Wizard,” (okay, Elton did nail that one!) and coda “See Me, Feel Me,” presenting what must be one of the greatest lyrics to end the 60s and start the 70s:
Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet
The concert ended with two songs that followed the Tommy set, two of their absolute greatest, “Baba O’Riley” during which Daltrey’s signature scream actually hit the mark, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” featuring those classic Townsend power chords. The lighting, and particularly the visual backdrops, rendered in hi-def imagery added mightily to the impact of the presentation. Overall it was a great night of music and a celebration of this legendary band, now more than 50 years in the making, and still rolling on.
p.s. while finishing up a chapter on the Who for my forthcoming book, I learned something interesting about what is possibly the greatest bit of film of the band playing live. It appears at the end of the documentary The Kids Are Alright, and features the Who playing a blistering version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” What I did not realize was the this is the last footage of drummer Keith Moon playing live, just shortly before his passing, and that it was filmed at Shepperton Studios by the movie’s young director, who felt that this song and it’s companion “Baba O’Riley” had not been properly captured on film….besides the other celluloid rarities the director collected for this doc, the inclusion of this footage alone makes the film worth collecting!