September 13, 2011
A deaf, dumb, and blind frontman.
When last we encountered Roger Daltrey here in South Florida -- at Hard Rock, in fact -- his voice was clearly frazzled, and apparently so was his patience. The first predicament was partially remedied by recruiting guitarist Simon Townshend to sub for him on several songs, but he attempted to ease the latter dilemma by venting his frustration on an audience member in a most unruly way. It was a sad spectacle, no doubt about it, and one we'd just as soon forget. Still, the fact that it occurred less than two years ago -- in November 2009, to be exact -- allowed the memory of that unfortunate evening to hang heavy over the anticipation of his upcoming performance.
In fact, it wasn't the only cloud hanging over Daltrey's appearance. Famously billed as the first complete performance of the Who's indomitable Tommy, it cast some doubt on the credibility of that claim. After all, Tommy was performed repeatedly from start to finish by the band itself in the months following its release in 1969. They even initiated a tour of fabled opera houses for that very purpose. Had guitarist and composer Pete Townshend not given his blessing to this endeavor (his increasing difficulty with deafness reportedly prevents him from touring), Daltrey's desire to resurrect it on his own might have smelled of exploitation. But reportedly Townshend did offer his nod of approval, allowing the Who's iconic crusader to take up his band's banner and carry it forth on his own.
Of course, those who still recall the Daltrey of old, with his flowing blond tresses and a bare-chested bod barely covered by leather and fringe, now have to face the fact that he's a 67-year-old, spectacle-wearing senior, a proposition that's difficult to reconcile in light of the Who's early anthem that once opined "I hope I die before I get old." Thankfully, that's one aspiration that has yet to come to pass, although the same can't be said of bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle. The truth is, Roger still looks remarkably vibrant these days, still tousle-haired, tanned, and boasting a youthful flush that belies his age. Ever agile, he's still a confident frontman, able to twirl a microphone without fumbling it and wail away on harp, competently strum a guitar and even pick away on ukulele when he has to. If his voice doesn't quite pack a youthful bluster or muster the bravado it once did, it still comes close to hitting the high notes and expressing an undiminished authority. Besides, any lapses are more than made up for by the way he tempers his tone with sentiment and sensitivity. The Tommy track list and its added material span more than two hours and demand both force and nuance, traits that Daltrey still seems to possess.
That's fortunate, because it was apparent that those who filled the nearly sold-out auditorium were devoted Who fanatics who expected no less. And on that score, Daltrey didn't disappoint. He tore through Tommy with a veracity that rivaled his performances of old, turning signature songs like "Pinball Wizard," "I'm Free," and the soaring conclusion, "We're Not Gonna Take It," into the obvious anthems that Townshend had always intended them to be. The crowd erupted at the first strums that signaled "Pinball Wizard," and by the time Tommy reached its conclusion with the famous "Listening to you" refrain, the audience was on its feet and cheering along. Likewise, when Daltrey augmented the Tommy tunes with Who classics like "Baba O'Riley," "Who Are You," "I Can See for Miles," and "Going Mobile" (mostly sung by Simon Townshend, who replicated his brother's vocals to a T), the audience was equally inspired, responding with a frenzy that matched the reactions the Who once received in their heyday.
A few unexpected entries were also slipped into the set list, among them "Giving It All Away," the Leo Sayer-penned song that appeared on Daltrey's initial solo album and a track that he claimed he had never sung before in concert. A Johnny Cash medley found him effective in a lower register, while a take on Taj Mahal's "Rider" practically became an opus all its own. And when he turned a lilting read of another of his solo standouts, "Without Your Love," into an appreciative thank you for fan devotion, Daltrey's tender touch prevailed.
Still, it was that hoary rock opera that all had come to witness, and the reward was a reading that was both credible and compelling.
If Daltrey and his deaf, dumb, and blind boy alter ego are no longer as inseparable as they once seemed, he proved he's still adept at slipping back into character. And for him, it's a lot less awkward than it would be for any of us who might opt to reclaim our former selves from 40 years before. Unlike our old bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T's, in Daltrey's capable hands, Tommy still wears well.
Personal bias: I'd rank the Who among my top five favorite bands of all time, and having caught several concerts by the group's original foursome, a performance by only one of their members might pale in comparison. Still, seeing one quarter of that combo is better than seeing none, and in his role as frontman, Daltrey carries the legacy well.
Random detail: Since this was the first date of his new tour, it was only natural that there were a few flubs, mainly in terms of some occasional false starts. "There were a few senior moments," Daltrey admitted at Tommy's conclusion.
By the way:
Having guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete's brother) on board lends further credence to this revival. The rest of the band was equally impressive. In fact, Daltrey's backing band -- Townshend, Frank Simes (guitar), Scott Deavours (drums), Jon Button (bass), and Loren Gold (keyboards) -- is the best Who cover band one would ever want to see. Kudos to Deavours in particular for ably replicating Keith Moon's reckless, relentless technique.
It's a Boy
Eyesight to the Blind
The Acid Queen
There's a Doctor I've Found
Go to the Mirror Boy
Tommy Can You Hear Me
Smash the Mirror
Tommy's Holiday Camp
We're Not Gonna Take It
I Can See For Miles
Who Are You
Behind Blue Eyes
Giving It All Away
Days of Light
Johnny Cash Medley
Young Man Blues
Without Your Love