This past Thursday, I gave my older brother (by 14 years) an early Christmas present by taking him to see The Who at the Prudential Center in Newark. As anyone who knows me will attest—and as my past feature on Pete Townshend’s memoir here confesses—I am a shameless fan of this band and have been ever since I first listened to a vinyl of “Tommy” in my room when I was a mere lad. Yet in all that time, I’d only seen them once, in my teen years, and from afar. This time, I vowed, I’d do it right. Second row center…I owe my brother much, so it was the least I could do for him.
With that said…I was leery nonetheless. After all, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have a combined age of 135 – as opposed to forty-five when they first cut “I Can’t Explain” back in 1967. Also, sadly, they of course did not perform with their deceased drummer Keith Moon (d: 1978) and John Entwistle (d: 2002) who formed arguably rock’s most powerful rhythm section. So how would the show turn out? I was curious, if cautiously optimistic.
First a few observations on the production itself: Pete and Roger have brought along on their tour an impressive array of musicians including Zakk Starkey (Ringo’s son) on drums, Pete’s own kid brother Simon on guitar, and Pino Palladino on bass. They also have a company of pianists/keyboardists and horns…having long abandoned the four-man line up from the bygone days of Woodstock , Monterey and Leeds. Technically the sound quality was excellent, the mix perfect, and though Pete seemed to every now and then glare at a stagehand for some glitches only he was aware of, the show went through flawlessly. Despite their reputation for being “rock’s loudest band” the aging Townshend, his own hearing wracked by tinnitus, seemed content to keep it at a proper volume…much to my own ears’ gratitude.
The Who went on at 8:30 and continued playing for two-and-a-half solid hours. (An abbreviated set by Springsteen standards perhaps, but still admirable nonetheless). What made it more impressive was that the first two hours was devoted to playing non-stop and cover-to-cover Townshend’s magnum opus, his second full-scale rock opera “Quadrophenia,” first released in 1973 and last performed in its entirety in 1997. From there they rounded off the night with a selection of their classics that firmly established The Who as one of Rock’s royal icons: “Who Are You?” “Pinball Wizard” “Baba O’Reilly” “Behind Blue Eyes” and their anthem of anthems “Won’t Get Fooled Again” whose admonition to “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” is as applicable to power and politics today as when first offered up in 1971.
The burning question of course is how did they sound? Daltrey is 68, though his physique, stamina and stage presence belie this fact. He was tasked with singing all of “Quadrophenia” which he calls “ Mount Everest for a singer”—and he did it. He really did it. Now, could he hit every note from the 1970s? Who can at his age? It helped that the key was dialed down three semi-tones from its originally recorded Cm to Am to accommodate his contracted range. But still, he sounded much more like Daltrey than Plant sounds like Plant, Jagger sounds like Jagger and so on. Up close his gouged face and neck don’t lie but I sure hope I look half so good at that age. And I must say I was exhausted just watching him. Amazingly, this man who is old enough to be my father, is somehow up to repeating this performance 37 times throughout the tour. That fact alone has earned him even more respect from me as one of rock’s great vocalists. As for his iconic scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” my jury is out; he seems to nail it dead on, but a part of me suspects some technological enhancement carried him over the top. Of course, I could be wrong.
As for Pete. Sure, he looks like he’s 67. He’s balding, gray beard, voice a touch raspy, a bit of paunch at the gut. In short, he is not trying to defy his age so much as manage it. Still, the famous windmill and flamenco strum showed itself from time to time, invoking a pleased roar from the crowd. The London street tough attitude was there as well. And when you look into his eyes he still shows that spark of the angry young man who has written so much music it's mind-boggling, has toured the world, smashed guitars, trashed hotels, and punched policemen and even Abbey Hoffman on the stage in his time. Although when someone called out for him to smash his guitar he sternly rebuked the man: “Smash my guitar? Now why the [bleep] would I do that?”
For those who came hoping to see the guys in their 20s who blew away Woodstock or jammed at Leeds, for the fans who had images of Roger in his famous tasseled leather jacket or Pete’s gas station attendant coverall and combat boots leaping through the air as he hammers down power chords on his red Gibson and kicking over Marshall stacks I suggest they stick with Youtube. If however, you came to see two of the quintessential rockers of their generation who for decades managed to put on what Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder calls “the greatest live act in the world” you were in for a real treat.
This doesn’t mean they abandoned their past; on the contrary, they seemed to embrace it. The massive video screen behind them bombarded the packed arena's 19,000 faithful with nostalgic images, moving and still, black-and-white and color, of their half-century career hurling them through time from their teen years through to homages to Moon and especially Enwistle, whom Pete dearly loved and still sorely misses. At one point the show was devoted to a film segment of John playing one of his whimsically funky bass solos to which Starkey respectfully drummed along—reminding us that as great as The Who still are, they freely admit they lost something when Keith and John passed, and they do not pretend otherwise.
Most important however, far beyond reminiscence, if you came to hear tremendous live music, expertly played by accomplished artists and a stellar stage production of some of the most recognized, beloved and enduring rock music of all time, you were not disappointed. And if you were at first a little wary (as I admit I was) of being suckered into paying top dollar to witness two aging rockers who see nothing but dollar signs at the end of their tour just going through the motions, then you would have been very pleasantly relieved indeed. The Who looked, sounded, and performed like they really wanted to be there, even perhaps needed to be there. They seemed to be having as much fun on stage as we were in a crowd, who from the moment Roger belted out the opening “Can you see the real me!” never sat down. These guys were definitely not mailing it in.
“You know, Brad,” confided my brother, who is even a bigger Who fan than I am if that’s possible, “I first saw these guys in 1969. A little known band, Led Zeppelin, was their warm-up act. Now it’s 2012 and they’re still here. Still doing it. And they still sound great!”
I think beyond the timelessness of the music, the real secret to their longevity is the chemistry between Daltrey and Townshend (which has been explosive in the past). Said chemistry was evident throughout the performance whose energy level never wavered. At times they would glance over to each other and smile as if exchanging mischievous secrets. And who knows, maybe they were. But if we in the surprisingly mixed-age crowd were not privy to their telepathy, I suspect the message was probably along the lines of their being glad they decided to give it one more go around before, perhaps, packing it in for good. Though don’t bet on it.
Long live rock!