Fifty years of The Who: An Appreciation

Seeing The Who again this week got me thinking about my relationship with my favorite band. I was born the same year as Tommy. The Who has been my favorite band for thirty six years, I’ve been seeing them live for most of that time. Writing about this last show made me remember many of the good times I’ve had as a Who concert goer (I’ve seen them around 20 times). Here are some of them.

  • Tommy is released in May of 1969. I was two months old. Two months later humans would land on the moon. These are all equally important events!
  • Age 13, at camp I had a cassette tape with Pinball Wizard, Baba O’Riley, and Won’t get Fooled Again on it. I played it a lot, but didn’t know much about them. I thought Roger was the only singer, and didn’t yet know that Pete Townshend was what I really liked.
  • Age 14, on a day like any other, I returned to the house worn out after ultimate frisbee. I snuck into my oldest brothers room and put on side one of Tommy album. Those next twenty minutes would change my musical life. Half-awake, I was transported by those songs. It was like nothing I had ever heard. I sunk into a state of rapture. I haven’t come out of it yet.
  • 1989, thirty years ago, I saw them live for the first time. The tour was derided for its prominent Budweiser branding, “Who on Ice” feel of many musicians, semi-deaf Pete Townshend playing acoustic in a glass box, and mostly that they were on tour at all after having called it quits publicly only seven years earlier. I didn’t care. They blew me away. (In retrospect, the thin air of Colorado may have added to my euphoria.)
  • 1993 (?) Pete Townshend on the Psychoderelict tour. It was my first time meeting fellow hard-core fans, as the local contingent of the Odds & Sods listserv gang went whale watching in the morning. We hit it off with another couple and were fast friends for the next several years. The show was fantastic. It closed with a full choir for Listening to You. The best part was when everything went wrong. The enormous then-cutting-edge video screen failed several times. Townshend stopped the show, went backstage to yell at somebody. He came back pissed off, picked up the electric counted 1-2-3-go and launched into a furious rendition of Magic Bus. (I would see him do that another show, Magic Bus seems to be his default when he’s angry.)
  • 1996, driving to New York City and seeing three of their tour-opening Quadrophenia shows at Madison Square Garden, featuring a one-eyed Daltrey. The first time I heard John Entwistle play a bass solo (during 5:15), literally dropped my jaw.
  • 1996? Dragging the young girls from the office to see them. Roger was over fifty, but still made one of them say, “ohmygod, for five minutes with that man…”
  • 1996? Catching Simon Townshend (Pete’s little brother) for his first album  (he should have released Medicine as the single) twice. Great shows. Not surprising at all he went on to be the second guitarist in The Who, and frankly plays the hard guitar parts these days while Pete gets all the credit.
  • 1998, on a vacation out west with my new girlfriend. Driving through New Mexico, the radio announce that John Entwistle would be playing that night. We changed our plans right there to see the show. It was terrible! A ratty little bar and Entwistle played so loud our ears rang the next two days. Couldn’t hear a damn note, just a wall of noise. (The trip was so great, it later turned out we were independently thinking, I could see being with this person forever. We’re at nineteen years and going strong.)
  • 2000, two weeks before my wedding catching another show. I still remember the crushing huge notes to end the guitar solo of Love Reign O’er Me – three simple notes played with such incredible authority and tone over those wonderful strings and chord changes. Simon had played great lead most of the night (including breaking a string during the complicated instrumental Quadrophenia song and simply switching to other voicings of the notes in real time), but Pete taught him a lesson right there.
  • 2007? In an otherwise average Who show, Townshend rips the living hell out of Eminence Front.  Much like this performance (from Vancouver 2006).
  • 2012, Quadrophenia. Bringing my 9-year old, for his first rock show. We ponied up for 3rd row seats. It’s a whole different concert. Probably the last time I was truly blown away by the whole show.
  • 2015, The Who Turn Fifty.  After seeing them in Atlanta, flew back to Boston and took my cousin. I had paid a princely sum for 2nd rows seats, figuring it was the last time I’d ever see them. It was a good show, but retroactively disappointing – the first time I felt Roger just couldn’t cut it, and the sound mix was terrible.
  • 2019, I’m no longer willing to pay lots of money. I get front row of the “100s” section, and have an enjoyable night. I think, “60% of the greatest live band ever is still more than most any other band will ever get”. There are just enough great moments to keep me going, and then the closers of Love Reign O’er Me and Baba O’Riley are transcendent and I leave with an unusually open smile on my face for the next hour.

Fifty years of my life and thirty years of live shows sprinkled throughout my adult life. If there’s never another one, it’s been a great ride. Thank you boys!

The Who: Moving On Review (Sept 18, 2019)

The Who (now in their 70s) performed with an orchestra. They kicked things off with a suite of Tommy songs.

  • Overture/Didn’t Hear It: The first notes of the overture played with a full orchestra had the audience going early. Unfortunately the mix was poor, a common complaint of mine the last few tours. Except for the bass and snare drums, Zak was inaudible. Together with the bass, there was a thudding noise instead of the engine that drives the music and the many dynamics in the songs. The orchestral timing was often subtly off from the rest of the band, removing the sharpness of hitting the notes just so on the beat. And The Who is all about hitting the beats hard.
  • 1921: A wonderful short song that usually doesn’t get their live treatment.
  • Amazing Journey / Sparks
  • Pinball Wizard: Here is the dynamic these days. Simon does the real work on the acoustic guitar. Pete idly strums on the electric. The screens focus on Pete doing not much interesting musically and the crowd goes crazy. It’s amazing how much of the real work is being done by Simon.
  • We’re Not Gonna Take It / Listening to You
  • Who Are You: Ah, now we’re getting warmed up.
  • Eminence Front: Hey, Pete’s awake! The old man is suddenly starting to play that guitar like he means it.
  • Imagine A Man: Much like on Daltrey Sings Townshend, the orchestra makes this song work. A wonderful deep cut.
  • Hero at Ground Zero: One of their two new songs. It’s hard to judge songs by a live performance, but it sounded ordinary. I could swear the chorus used the same backing chords as The Punk Meets the Godfather.

The orchestra left for a while. This was good, the less people on stage, the more the band could let loose.

  • The Kids Are Alright
  • I Can See For Miles
  • You Better You Bet
  • Won’t Get Fooled Again: One of the high points of the night. Pete on acoustic, Roger singing, and nothing else. A modern reprise of Pete’s performance on Secret Policemans Ball. Did you know that together with Bon Jovi, that was the genesis of MTVs: Unplugged. Yep, look it up.

Now the orchestra starts sliding back in.

  • Behind Blue Eyes: Featuring a violin and cello.
  • Ball and Chain: Their other new song, stronger than the first. The verse/chorus is overly simple, but the musical break between verses is quite interesting. On the subway home, I was informed this song is derived from a Pete Townshend solo song, Guantanamo.

On to the Quadrophenia suite (with Orchestra) and closing:

  • The Real Me
  • I’m One: This should always be acoustic. Roger played blues harmonica over it. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Now the orchestra and the band are sounding great together.
  • 5:15: Seems sad to have no bass solo.
  • Quadrophenia (the song): Nice to see Simon and Pete trading off the parts with each other. The orchestra is wonderful. Simon rules.
  • Love Reign O’er Me: I have never heard of Loren Gold, but I’m a fan now. He took the piano intro and made it his own. He captured all the melancholy feel of the album but with an extended classical take on it, a few minutes worth. Roger now sings the lyrics correctly (on the album, he reversed the lines, The night is hot as black as ink/I sleep and I lay and I think” which makes far less sense). After the song was over, Pete introduced the band with the piano player as “The gent who played that incredible piano part for two and half hours or so.” This is a song that’s hard to get right. Pearl Jam comes the closest, but somehow misses. Even with Roger unable to hit so many notes with power, all the feel and emotion comes across. With a full orchestra, this was a wonderful closer to the main show. And thanks be to heaven, they didn’t play the ridiculous fake encore game. (Lights go off. Everyone claps. They cheer some more. The band comes back on. Repeat at next venue.) There was a few minutes pause as they talked to the audience for a bit, then launched into the closer.
  • Baba O’Riley: Goddamnit, what a song. I don’t care how old they are, how bad the sound is, that Pete almost falls over while closing the song out or anything negative. This is just the best. The violin player (Katie Jacoby) absolutely destroys it (start at 3:15). That same huge grin on her face was planted on mine the rest of the night. To quote Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “Marvelous.”

Notable cuts from the setlist: I Can’t Explain (their traditional opener), My Generation, Tea & Theatre.