As the 60’s rock scene gave way to the early ’70’s, the landscape changed dramatically. Ticket prices still hadn’t escalated. Events like Woodstock showed us what could happen when really large crowds were allowed to gather for music. Sound systems were growing at a prodigious rate. The arena show was born.
A number of bands were able to climb up to that level. Filling a 20,000 seat venue with sound and spectacle is no mean feat. Few were able to maintain a presence at the top of the rock and roll mountain. One can argue convincingly that The Who were the biggest and baddest of the bunch. They developed a reputation as the world’s loudest band. The performances often legendary.
Fast forward some 50 years and I walked into the Xcel Energy Center with no small amount of trepidation. The two remaining original members, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are both on the back side of 70. There hasn’t been any new, meaningful music in many years. And this tour was ostensibly billed as something like the proverbial “last ride”. For about the tenth time. It’s simply not realistic to expect them to bring the same fire and performance of those halcyon days. I wouldn’t pay good money to go watch Michael Jordan dunk these days, either.
Even if they could, would they want to? After all, they’re not the same individuals they were 40 or 50 years ago. Neither are we. It’s not rare for older bands to continue to tour the old music. But those shows risk becoming museum pieces. Dad Rock through and through. A sea of gray and pattern baldness. A set list designed to touch all the bases as opposed to one that challenges. Images are shattered and heroes fall. It’s hard to age gracefully in the world of rock.
I often write about how the best shows, in my opinion, are not the best played. Or feature a litany of songs I love. My favorite shows these days are rarely delivered by bands from whom I bought the most music. Unlike many my age, I’m not really enamored with a band or concert because it teleports me back to some sunnier, more idealistic time of my youth. I react to the communion between band and audience; the raw energy. More often than not, it’s a younger band, staking a claim and playing as though their futures depend on it. I’m moved by the circumstances around my attendance; the people with me, the surprises, the sudden surges of synchronicity. Judged on that criteria, Friday night’s Who concert was a winner.
As I took my seat, it suddenly occurred to me that buried deep in my wallet was a ticket stub. There are actually a few. Can’t exactly tell you why. I’m not a collector, per se. I went digging and there it was. A 1979 Who stub from New Haven, CT. A show that wrapped their North American tour. That wasn’t my first Who show and it was nowhere near my last. But it was certainly my favorite.
Generally speaking, my history with The Who has been a delight. However, mixed into those many occasions were some disappointments. Tours where Townshend and Daltrey were on the outs. Maybe Daltrey’s voice was blown out (once in the Twin Cities Townshend sang all the songs). Or the effort was little more than a pro forma in which Townshend agreed to re-form to put bassist John Entwhistle or Daltrey back on solid financial footing. He certainly didn’t want to do it. It’s one of the great ironies of The Who. At times, the level of sophistication of the compositions battles with the punk sensibilities and raw power. Forget slick. It’s rock and roll.
But the presence of that old ticket stub, set beside the 2019 version, certainly drove home a point. This is a band that’s occupied a major spot in my life’s soundtrack. That ’79 show, shortly after the death of Keith Moon with former Faces drummer Kenny Jones replacing the thunder, remains indelibly stamped in my memory as one of my favorite music experiences. But now the former New Haven Civic Center is a parking lot. What was I getting myself into?
Before jumping in to describe what turned my crank and delighted me with Friday’s experience, let me take a moment to acknowledge the opener. Canadian power trio Reignwolf was as much a vision of the future as the headliner’s version of Substitute was of the past. I first encountered Reignwolf earlier this year at SXSW. Of the thousands of acts, this one was singled out at the behest of fellow TCM reviewer Amanda Hefner. She dragged us miles across town for an outdoor, Bloody Mary themed event at the PBS station ( they’re the good people who bring us Austin City Limits). The band thundered. Mixing deep blues in a cocktail reminiscent of both the Black Keys and Rival Sons. Growling vocals through a harmonica mic in the same way as Black Snakes’ Allen Sparhawk.
One funny thing about The Who is that I often remember who opened for them. That is quite bizarre. I’m not big on details and I don’t care much for fluff. Often, I time my arrival to avoid an arena opener (never the case in a club). I want to see what I paid to see, not the record company’s latest project. The fact is, I don’t know how the bands are chosen. I’d like to believe Townshend has something to do with it when it’s his tour. He has an uncanny ability to see a bit of himself in a young artist. He identifies that special quality that points to great things. Perhaps not commercial success, that’s a crap shoot. But Who openers are bands that go on to prove that they have what it takes to light the place on fire. To metaphorically smash their instruments.
That ’79 North American tour featured a young Willie Nile, a New York City legend who continues to make remarkable pure rock music. Last tour, Canada’s The Dirty Nil brought the bombast and screaming guitars. If tickets can still be had, it should be noted that The Nil is on the road with White Reaper and coming to the Amsterdam on October 5. If you want a taste of what The Who was like in their young 20’s, they’ll serve up a reminder.
The Who was preceded to the stage by a full orchestra that wrapped its way around the back and sides of the stage. The crowd was ready and the two elder statesmen were met by a standing ovation. The band dived right into the Tommy Overture, singling out a handful of highlights for Daltrey to get involved. He sang beautifully. So trepidation number one, how was his voice?, came right off the table. He wasn’t just adequate. He may well have been the best I’ve ever heard him. Over probably at least a dozen concerts, that was a remarkable surprise. The first time he swung the microphone in that signature Woodstock move, the place erupted. Admittedly, he didn’t catch it cleanly but that was beside the point.
The first “Act” was dedicated to that album. It’s designed for an orchestra. For the most part, I was glad they were there. Tommy was groundbreaking. Most of us have seen video footage of just the original 4 members slugging their way through the piece when it was first introduced. But there is little question the theatricality of the work demands all those strings, timpani’s and french horns.
The band was perhaps 15 minutes in when the next unexpected moment occurred. Sitting beside me was my youngest son Rowan, who is 12 years old. Like his four older brothers, he’s very well grounded when it comes to classic rock. Before the show started, I’d proposed a selfie of us both. I explained that he could show his own kids some day. To say to them: “Hey, that old guy slumped in the recliner and drooling actually used to spend his nights rocking out to live music!” He was horrified. When you’re that age, Dads tend to be pretty embarrassing. As the music soared, I felt his arm slip around my middle. I turned to see his face, suffused with joy; singing every word with all his heart. Beside himself with the power and communion of live music dished out by a legendary band.
About a decade ago I was sitting beside his older brother Cameron, who was the same age at the time. Roger Waters reprised Dark Side of the Moon. Sitting very near the same spot. I watched that young boy also lifted up and struck like a bell. It set that one on a road that has him working as a professional musician these days. Seeing that same elation in another of my sons will remain with me forever. Functional families have to find those common passions. For us, it’s live music. The Who reminded me of the power they have to bind.
The point of my review really isn’t about the show itself. It was great. All the hits. At least as many as you could squeeze into 2 hours. It was as good as it could be. Different, no doubt, from that 1979 show. That one left me half deaf, seeing spots from the sheets of flame that erupted from the stage, for days afterwards. The music has not only matured and refined, it has endured. Admittedly, some moments were better than others. There were times I didn’t want the orchestral backing. It rounded off some of the sharp edges that define their reckless thrash. At other times, it built the song into a tidal wave that a simple rock band could never achieve. The second half of the show, once the band moved into Quadrophenia territory, was simply incendiary.
Again, it’s fuel for one of those late night debates. Tommy may have had the most success. Who’s Next may rank as one of the greatest hard rock albums in history. But Quadrophenia’s loose narrative of alienation laid the groundwork for punk (in terms of attitude, not in terms of musical deconstruction) is surely Townshend’s master work.
The point is that most of The Who’s music remains as vibrant today as ever. If you pay any attention to musical vines, as they branch and influence, you can hear Townshend’s music all over the landscape. It transcended rock and roll back then. It asserted itself as something more important than just popular music for the masses. It still does. Think of it this way…what other bands have a catalog which is as scale-able as The Who? Many of the night’s rock classics sound as though they were originally written for an orchestra (in some cases they were). And yet songs like the defiant punk anthem Won’t Get Fooled Again can be stripped to a single acoustic guitar in Pete’s hand while a microphone hangs beside Daltrey’s marching boot. An arena in full throat. “And the parting on the Left. Is now a parting on the Right. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss!”
All I could think was that the times really haven’t changed. How things have a way of coming full circle. In our present case of ideological sparring, the parting first occurred on the right. Then the left. But the point remains. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss! Time to leap over the ramparts and join the fray.
Was this the last time I’ll see Who? Is there really an end? Those pronouncements have been made before and on more than one occasion. Who Knows? If they do, will I be there to see it? I honestly don’t know. However, they gave me a moment to look upon my son’s joy infused face, singing with all his heart. They created that moment of communion. It doesn’t get better than that and I, like so many at the X, cherish the gift.
Photos by David Rubene