The Who Hits Back tour is a testament to rejuvenation
Go ahead. Call ‘em Half-a-Who or make a snarky boxing joke about the tour’s title, The Who Hits Back! That isn’t quite right, is it? Shouldn’t it be something like The Who as Now Constituted Hit Back With a Flower?
You know, it’s because they’re old and not as nimble or ferocious as they once were, back when drummer Keith Moon and/or bassist John Entwistle were still carbon-based life forms and dominant, loud and forceful presences within the band.
My social media feed, and I bet yours, have been filled with vows from one-time fans to never see the band again, a pledge that’s been made since the death of Moon in 1978 or Entwistle in 2002. (But not so publicly, being pre-Internet/social media.) There are always brilliant witticisms about Pete Townshend not dying before he got old. Imagine! He didn’t follow through on what that character sang about so long ago! (See the addendum from a 1985 interview I did with Townshend and his thoughts on “My Generation.”)
The Who – yes, as currently constituted – are not hitting back with a flower; this Who, which I saw at TD Garden in Boston May 18, still unleashes a multi-layered attack, a panoply of punches if you will. I won’t say all of them landed, and this is, unmistakably, not the band of yore, but most did. And, if you’re wondering – and this is the big Who question these days – Roger Daltrey’s voice was in great shape. (It seemed a little shaky when they did “Behind Blue Eyes” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last month.)
VIDEO: The Who perform “Behind Blue Eyes” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
They’re on a North American run that finishes up its first leg May 29 in Bethel, NY, and resumes again Oct. 2 in Toronto. At TD Garden, Daltrey hit those high notes, didn’t botch any words (that I could tell), and the multi-syllabic “l-o-o-o-v-e” cry at the end of “Love, Reign O’er Me” was still dramatically and climactically stretched out. I think “love’’ would be the word The Who wanted to leave you with during what I’d call their “regular” set. The final song was “Baba O’Riley,” but it has been an encore before and was a sort of an encore here: The Who just dispensed with any leaving-the-stage/constant clapping nonsense and just went into it after the Quadrophenia set closed. (I suppose to be completely accurate the very last song was a jolly band-and-crowd singalong of “Happy Birthday to You,” as Townshend turned 77 the next day, May 19.)
“Baba” was superb, just as last time, with sexy, effervescent violinist Katie Jacoby rising off her chair and coming out front to play and dance with Daltrey and Townshend as the song built to its frenetic climax. The violin rush was more than equal to Pete’s ARP freakout from the nascent days of synth tech. I also reconsidered “teenage wasteland.” a place I might’ve once roamed, from the distance of five decades. I was happy enough to revisit it in song only. And that “They’re all wasted!” shout, one which once seemed like a defiant boast of wanton youth, made me cringe a little. As it should, really.
I’m now gonna borrow from pal Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom and what he posted on Facebook post-show: “We come up with excuses not to go see shows. And when they are huge, expensive, and the artists are past their prime, it becomes easier to take a pass. … Leaving this one, you remember the ones you regret not going to, not the ones you attended. I can’t believe I waited this long to see what’s left of The Who. Roger is in unbelievably strong voice. Pete is still dexterous and limber with the windmills (if unsatisfactorily still playing Strats into Fender amps instead of Gibsons into Hiwatts or Marshalls). And here they are, Pete turning 77 … playing THOSE songs. These songs that mean so much to me. Like this one. I’m back in my bedroom at age 14.”
Today’s Who: Daltrey does not sport long blond curls and is never bare-chested. He is not doing the wide-arc mic cord swinging thing anymore. Townshend’s doing no scissor-kicking or guitar destroying. But Daltrey’s gesticulating as if he means it and Townshend is windmilling a lot so, they are behaving as rock stars of a certain age should.
There are a lot of players surrounding Daltrey and Townshend and none of them are household names, save, maybe, Pete’s younger brother Simon on guitar and vocals. He’s been in the fold forever, it seems. Fleshing it out, two keyboardists: Loren Gold and Emily Marshall, bassist Jon Button (replacing Pino Palladino, who stepped in for Entwistle immediately upon his death in Vegas with the tour about to kick off), and backing vocalist Billy Nicholls. Long-time drummer Zak Starkey – Ringo’s son and, yes, closer to Moon in style than he is to his dad – may sport longish blond hair and some face fuzz but he’s no longer the kid: He’s 56 and the longest-tenured Who drummer. Chew on that for a moment.
That’s the main band, but very much part of the proceedings is an orchestra of 48 (drawn from local musicians in every city) conducted by Keith Levenson with principal string players, violinist Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder, who added their lovely bowed bits to “Behind Blue Eyes.” The band played without the orchestra for only four songs by my count.
Back to the tour title. A more accurate tour title might be The Who Redux. Which is to say, as enjoyable as it was, aye, there was a rub: The Who are presenting more or less the same show as when they did when they last toured. They stopped in Boston at Fenway Park in September 2019.
These sets worked, this one on May 18 and the one three years ago, both with the mini-Tommy-loaded opening and the mini-Quadrophenia-packed closing. With “Baba O’Riley,” as mentioned previously, ending the show and a smattering of standalone standards between the two rock opera segments. That’s where they shuffled the cards, The core hits were there again (had to be there), meaning “Who Are You” – which I now and associate with the nostalgia of CSI, season one – “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and that ever-bubbly “You Better You Bet.” That’s an unabashed bubbly pop song, a toe-tapper with a subtle snarl imbued in the pledge of love.
As to “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” well, 1) “The parting on the left is now parting on the right” has never been truer and 2) Waiting as the synth burbles away for Daltrey to scream “Yeah!” – and then joining him when he does so – is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s supreme pleasures.
Out this time were: “Imagine a Man,” “Hero Ground Zero,” “Substitute” and “I Can See for Miles” In were: “Ball and Chain” (again) – Townshend promised it was the only song they play from that forgotten 2019 album called WHO – “The Seeker, “Join Together” and “Relay,” the Jews harp-led former song their best-known non-LP track and both originally intended for that famously aborted 1972 Lifehouse project.
Since this is the part of the set that was change-able, here’s where I’ll kvetch over the song choices: I’d much rather they’d dug into most anything besides “The Seeker” (it’s a little dated, asking Timothy Leary to help find truth) from the Meaty, Beaty Big & Bouncy compilation and kinda wished they’d plumbed the Odds & Sods rarities and out-takes collection or The Who Sell Out. Like “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,” “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” “Pure and Easy” or “Too Much of Anything.” Or maybe from the last great Who album, The Who by Numbers, with “Slip Kid” or “How Many Friends.”
Townshend, who can sometimes be a chatty Cathy, was pretty restrained, but did burst out with this necessary explanation after playing the CSI theme song: “It’s great to be … anywhere,” he said, the pregnant pause very much intended for effect. (It was great to be anywhere.) He thanked us for taking the Covid “gamble,” with its “life or death” risk and noted “it’s a gamble for us as well. Old people get it. Really old people just keel over and die, but I didn’t!” A pause. “Jokes aside, it was no fun.”
Daltrey kinda blew at the end of the night by happily hedging that we were almost back to normal then going full-blown, “We are back to normal!” Eh, no, Rog. We’re in New England, a Covid hotspot again, and the CDC is now urging indoor mask regulations as the latest virus variant goes along its merry, uncaring way. It may not be the killer it was in 2020, but it ain’t that pretty at all, still. The Boston crowd was voluntarily about half-masked.
The Who utilized the same elegant, luxurious stage set as last time: A crinkled-curtain backdrop lit up in various combinations of blue, red and silver. Neon light poles that were spread out amongst the orchestra members. Flashing lights that sometimes popped on screen in sync to the beats.
Now to the two main set pieces, Tommy and Quadrophenia. Tommy was about a half-hour, Quadrohenia a bit longer so, by design, they’re edited performances of the double-album opuses. I’m thinking The Who is banking on the fact that we know these albums by heart and can fill in the narrative blanks along the way if we need to. The song choices made some logical sense, thematically and musically. Both, of course, are well-suited to orchestral accompaniment – the strings and horns sweep and soar. No rock band ever – save the Moody Blues maybe? – has been more suited to orchestral accompaniment than The Who. It’s not used as window dressing or aren’t-we-mature-now sophistication. Only upon occasion (“5:15” especially) did I miss the power rock crunch of the raw Who.
Both of these albums are steeped in nostalgia. Hearing them once again (at whatever age you are) both puts you in the moment and transports you back to what they meant when they were new and fresh to you.
Tommy: It began with “Overture” (as, um, overtures are generally placed) and whenever The Who got to a familiar riff, long embedded in your brain, you smiled, hints of what was to come. Now, only six more Tommy songs were to do that, but a smart grouping of “1921,” “Amazing Journey,” “Sparks,” “Pinball Wizard,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “See Me, Feel Me.” (“See Me, Feel Me” is not listed on the LP – it’s part of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – but it has been released separately, too, as a single. So, let’s call it its own song.)
Tommy thoughts: The intro song, “1921,” seemed so long ago, ancient times, when it came out in 1969 – 48 years. Now, it’s 2022 and we’re 53 years from 1969. “Pinball Wizard” brought me right back to my days of being one. Sorta. The teenage me was pretty good, and placed in a New England regional competition as a “tournament wizard” (top 20 or something). “We’re Not Gonna Take It” again brought home the message: Be wary of false messiahs, with the crowd rising up to sing that refrain from that Twisted Sister song. (That’s a joke.) Timeless, of course, though I wish more cultists could and would do that. The segue-way into “See Me, Feel Me” part of the song brought the first shivers of the night.
Quadrophenia: This album was specifically about a time (mid- ‘60s) and place (England) but it hit this Yank at the perfect time, my sweet spot of being 17 and being able to identify with the protagonist Jimmy (yeah, the same name as mine helped.) Confusion, cockiness, braggadocio, humility, lust, feeling like both an outsider and insider, wanting to be part of a gang (for Jimmy the Mods), causing trouble, hoping for redemption or love reigning.
The Who chose five songs, beginning with the questioning/explanatory “The Real Me,” going through “I’m One,” “5:15,” “The Rock” and “Love, Reign O’er Me.” They were played beautifully – the band and orchestra meshing as one – and especially moving was the long instrumental, “The Rock,” where The Who utilized a quick-hit video montage (the only one of the night) to take us in a whirlwind back through time, from the ‘60s mods through, well, a partial list: Vietnam War, Vietnam protests, LBJ, Nixon, Elvis’s death, the Sex Pistols, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, Bob Geldof (Live Aid), shots of Moon and Entwistle (big cheers), Tiananmen Square, Bush 2, Kuwait, 9/11 (people in New York running from ground zero). Takeaway: It’s a war-weary world, as the song by the Call goes.
When they got to “Love, Reign O’er Me” – forever a tower of power – all was, at least temporarily, cleansed.
Addendum on not playing “My Generation.” This is culled from a 1985 interview with Townshend and subsequent story.
Townshend hardly spares himself when it comes to accusations of hypocrisy. In 1965, at 19, Townshend wrote “My Generation,” an anthem of youthful rebellion. He conceived the famous lyric – and Daltrey sang it – from the head, heart and spleen: “Hope I die before I get old!” They played the song on what was then called their “final tour” in 1982.
It was not one of Townshend’s proudest moments. “I played it but I didn’t sing it,” he says. “I wouldn’t sing it. That’s never coming out of my mouth again . . . They’re great chords. I must write new words sometime.”
With a certain detachment, Townshend picked apart “My Generation.” “I did a short interview with the Wall Street Journal in London, and in it I ended up saying something like ‘I look back at the man I was the night I wrote “My Generation” with a sneer.’ I don’t sneer at the work, but I definitely sneer at the sentiments. I was a . . . hypocrite really. I think over time my aim was to subvert, but at the same time infiltrate, the establishment. I think it’s a great irony that the room I wrote ‘My Generation’ in – an indictment of the establishment and everything it represents – is smack in the middle of Belgravia, which is like Fifth Avenue, in a $400 a week apartment. Far from struggling. Hypocrisy abounds.”
VIDEO: The Who Hits Back tour rehearsals