Words by James Farrell | Photo by Joe Papeo
Times have changed since the ‘60s, when The Who was a group of angry young Brits, slaughtering guitars and blowing up drum sets for dancing, pilled-up Mods. For one thing, only two of the band’s original four members—singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend—have survived to usher in the band’s fiftieth year of existence, a feat being celebrated with the currently ongoing “The Who Hits 50!” tour. For another thing, Daltrey and Townshend are in their 70s, and while Daltrey has remained in shockingly good shape, he is hardly the pinnacle of masculinity that he was in his prime, and his voice has followed a similar decline. Before their show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center—a venue that didn’t exist 50 years ago—a message appeared on the screen, politely asking the audience to resist smoking. Apparently, the smoke is detrimental to Daltrey’s voice and could force him to cancel the show, as he threatened to do a few days earlier at the appearance weed smoke at the Nassau Coliseum.
To say that The Who has, as the old cliché says, aged like fine wine, seems too polite for the weary rockers. They’ve aged more like a magical old beer that’s been left out in the sun too long, which somehow retains a mysteriously satisfying taste, even if it’s not the same as it was when it was fresh. At the Barclays Center this past week, Daltrey and Townshend fought off age and the voice-killing weed smoke to lead a band of six excellent musicians through a fresh two-hour set of classic hits and back-wall throwbacks. And despite all the changes and new challenges that have amassed over fifty years, despite outliving the excitement of the British Invasion, The Who proved that it could still refresh, revitalize, and rivet, even with a few kinks along the way.
Early on, Daltrey’s voice was not fully cooperating with him. He strained to hit the notes of opening song, “I Can’t Explain” and his vocals were mixed a bit low to give him time to work out his control and warm up his range. His voice wasn’t entirely needed, however—he entertained by dancing and twirling his microphone by the wire as he did in his prime, leading the crowd as they sung loudly over him. The crowd shouted in worship as Townshend stepped forward and gave the first windmill of the night, lights flashing behind him. The band stumbled through somewhat sloppy versions of “The Seeker” and “Who Are You” before hitting their stride on “The Kids Are Alright.” Daltrey’s voice would falter sporadically throughout the night, but on the whole, these were excusable hiccups in an otherwise impressive and powerful vocal performance. The passionate screams in “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were so strongly reminiscent of the original recordings, that it’s likely they were actually just the original recordings played over arena speakers. But nobody would fault the band if this were true—If Daltrey has earned anything in fifty years, it’s a break.
Townshend’s guitar playing has gotten more technically impressive with age, but the man that Daltrey referred to on stage as “one of the most brilliant composers of the 20th century in popular music,” sometimes overstepped the boundaries of his instrument. Townshend has often been considered one of the greatest rhythm guitar players of all time; he was great at what he didn’t do, capable of playing lead but more likely to step back and let late bass player John Entwistle take over. With two other rhythm guitar players on stage (including his immensely talented brother, Simon), he sometimes didn’t know where to fit in. Townshend’s playing was especially intrusive on “Eminence Front,” and the whole song felt a bit messy as a result. But Townshend was chatty throughout the night, and his guitar playing wasn’t nearly as important as his mere presence, the father of the classic set of songs that electrified a crowd of longtime fans and new initiates (At the end of the night, Daltrey handed his tambourine to a 7 year old boy in the front row).
The six men that accompanied Daltrey and Townshend on stage were the unsung heroes of the night. Zak Starkey continued decade long run as the most perfect possible replacement for late drummer Keith Moon, banging wildly on the drums in Moonlike fashion while taking his own creative liberties. If there were a Keith Moon University of Drumming, Starkey would have graduated top of his class. Simon Townshend’s backing vocals and guitar playing tended to closely resemble the originally recorded material, generating the nostalgia that Daltrey and Townshend couldn’t generate on their own.
Perhaps the best part of the show was the set list; it was clear evidence that this tour was truly a fan-driven venture, as it covered both the most beloved hits and the deepest cuts. One of the biggest surprises of the night was the ten-minute mini-opera from the eponymous album, A Quick One While He’s Away. With this ambitious song, the band risked alienating a crowd hungry for well-known classics, and fired on all cylinders to give one of the most fun performances of the night. Other surprising choices included “Slip Kid” from Who By Numbers, “Join Together,” one of the night’s biggest highlights, and “I Can See For Miles,” which, aside from “My Generation,” was Daltrey’s strongest song of the night.
Throughout the Barclays Center there was a bittersweet sense of relief, a sense that the passage of time was finally drawing closer to the end of The Who’s history, but a satisfaction that they would go out on their terms, maybe not at the top of their game, but surprisingly close. After an incredible medley of songs from Tommy and an encore of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Daltrey grumpily muttered something about weed smokers. The crowd laughed. He brightened up and, like a grandfather, he thanked everyone for being “polite and respectful.” As he walked off the stage, a pink bra flew at his feet. It’s true what they say—some things never change.
I Can’t Explain
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See For Miles
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love Reign O’er Me
A Quick One While He’s Away
Amazing Journey >
Pinball Wizard >
See Me, Feel me
Won’t Get Fooled Again
TheWaster.com | BK