When it comes to bidding farewell, the Who have always been prime contenders. I recall a concert at the old Joe Robbie Stadium some 20 years ago when the band claimed it would be their last go-around. They recruited a slew of special guests to affirm that contention. There was also a previous farewell tour in '79, when Pete Townshend insisted they were giving up the ghost due to the demise of drummer Keith Moon. In fact, every one of the Who's outings of the past couple of decades has offered this suggestion. And no wonder. With Moon long gone and bassist John Entwistle dead over a decade, any claim to the Who's history might seem somewhat sanctimonious to begin with.
Whether or not this will be the band's final outing remains to be seen, but given its conceptual intentions -- that is, to replay their operatic opus Quadrophenia -- there's valid reason for making the rounds. Consequently, Daltrey, Townshend, and newer recruits Zak Starkey (drums), Pino Palladino (bass), and Pete's brother Simon Townshend (guitar/backing vocals) -- assisted by no less than three keyboard players and a small brass section to boot -- deserve credit for attempting to do more than merely rehashing the hits.
After all, like Tommy, Quadrophenia is a complex song cycle with a tangible plot line -- one that centers on a young Mod named Jimmy and how he copes with his coming of age. It also has the benefit of riveting, anthemic melodies to help move the story along.
The initial stop on a tour that keeps them on the road through the end of February, last night's show offered the Who their first opportunity to test the production's many moving parts.
At one point Townshend alluded to opening night jitters, but for the most part, he and Daltrey seemed up to the task. Townshend treated the audience to several of his patented windmill gestures, while Daltrey occasionally lassoed his mic in his rock god ways of old.
Mostly though, the show was about the visuals, beginning with a video backdrop that displayed images of London during the blitz, and then wove its way forward through the postwar boom, the burgeoning adolescent rebellion of the '50s, the Beatles, and the British music invasion and beyond into the tumult of the '60s. The band set a high bar; there were frequent film clips of the younger Who. It was hard to take one's eyes off the images of the original line-up in its prime.
The comparisons between then and now became inevitable. In fact, at some points, the act of binding past and present seemed to take precedence. An instrumental interlude included a lengthy video sequence showing Entwistle performing an extraordinary bass solo while the live band practically faded into the background. "Bell Boy" featured a film clip of Keith Moon adding his distinctive Cockney vocal. Even in the present tense, the spotlight was shared with Simon Townshend, who not only took on an exceptional share of the guitar duties, but inexplicable sang the lead vocal on the song "I'm One."
Nevertheless, by the time the Quadrophenia portion of the program wound its way to a conclusion, today's Who were in full throttle. The instrumental "The Rock" provided an ideal soundtrack for another series of images denoting the new millennium, complete with visual references to Columbine, 9-11 and the Iraqi invasion, and when they concluded with the stirring "Love Reign O'er Me." Any doubts about whether the band was up to their task at hand quickly dissipated. It proved so conclusive, in fact, that many members of the audience began heading for the exits in masse was the Quadrophenia portion concluded.
Oddly enough, so did Townshend.
Since the show was billed as Quadrophenia and "more," a "more" portion seemed inevitable. After a brief respite, the musicians returned, surging their way through "Pinball Wizard," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Who Are You," and an especially incendiary "You Better You Bet," with "Baba O'Reilly" rounding it out.
Although the band seemed momentarily unsure about the sequence of songs -- this was the first night of the tour after all -- the colorful visual effects were even more stunning than before. This was indeed a show for the ages, proof positive that the Who could live up to their legacy.
One question remained at the conclusion however. Prior to "Baba O' Reilly," Townshend was seen storming off the stage, leaving Daltrey and the others to perform the song without him. As soon as the song ended, the others exited as well, seeming to finish the show prematurely and sans any encore. Townshend was apparently upset with the stage monitors and excessive noise levels, even though, at first, he didn't inform his fellow band members and offered no explanation for his petulance. Earlier, the two frontmen had shared an embrace and everything seemed in sync.
Opening act, Vintage Trouble, was a fine precursor to the headliners, despite having the unenviable role of having to satiate a crowd primed for the Who. Nevertheless, they possessed sufficient swagger, a clear confidence and a polished enough presence to allow an admirable performance. They take a rocking yet soulful stance, all well choreographed and professionally polished in a manner that finds them geared for greater glories.
Although it's doubtful anyone actually knew who they were, they were an appropriate opening act in that they helped elevate the energy early on.
Personal Bias: Having seen the Who half a dozen times previously -- including at least twice with Moon and Entwistle in tow -- the bar had already been set extraordinarily high as far as I was concerned. Still, there's apt reason why the Who are ranked as one of the best live bands of all time, and any time they hit the boards, there's the potential it will be a life-changing experience.
The Crowd: Here's one classic band that still draws an audience of all ages. Fans ranged from teenagers to adults of senior citizen status.
By the Way: Thanks to the frizzy haired fellow named Mike who sat in front of us, sharing both his binoculars and some garbled tales from back in the day, mostly stories that seemed to center on Jim Morrison and a pants-less encounter with the cops. I'm not sure we got the gist of it, but Mike was entertaining nonetheless.
I Am the Sea
The Real Me
Cut My Hair
The Punk and the Godfather
The Dirty Jobs
Is It In My Head?
I've Had Enough
Sea and Sand
Love Reign O'er Me
Behind Blue Eyes
Who Are You
You Better You Bet