10/26/2011

Roger Daltrey: Giving an Unmistakable Voice to "Tommy"

Roger Daltrey, the British singer who is best known as the lead vocalist with The Who, brought a wealth of musical history with him when he performed in the Theater of the Clouds at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, on October 24, 2011. As a member of one of the most renowned bands in the entire domain of rock, he has achieved a lasting and undeniable measure of worldwide distinction. Appearing onstage in Portland with a hand-picked collection of deft musicians that included Simon Townshend, the younger brother of Pete Townshend, on guitar, Roger Daltrey boldly provided a stirring experience that contained the best elements of timeless rock'n'roll.

Pete Townshend may have written most of the music for The Who, but it was Roger Daltrey's unmistakable voice that brought the music to hard-edged life, from "My Generation" to "Won't Get Fooled Again," and especially in the case of Tommy, the extraordinary album that first propelled The Who to the towering heights of widespread fame. Roger Daltrey did not merely sing the songs that tell the strange and compelling story of Tommy, the boy who is deaf, dumb, and blind. In performance after performance of the celebrated "rock opera" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he transformed Tommy into a living character who had the ability to engage audiences around the world.

On his tour in 2011, Roger Daltrey has chosen to return to Tommy, offering full performances of the groundbreaking work that The Who once took to the opera houses of Europe. In Portland, nearing the end of the American leg of a tour that began in the United Kingdom, it was clear that he still delights in singing, and takes special delight in singing the songs of The Who. For a man of sixty-seven, particularly a man who has been dwelling in the wild limelight of rock'n'roll since his early twenties, he looked and sounded extremely good. Roger Daltrey wears eyeglasses nowadays, and his gestures of showmanship are not quite as smooth as they were in his youthful prime, but he still has a roaring voice, and he still cuts a vigorous figure onstage. (He still maintains his fondness for swinging his microphone on its cord, too, wildly hurling it around his head as if it were a lariat.) He has retained the bearing of an unquestioned star.

Tommy was rendered faithfully, in a strong and straightforward manner, with Roger Daltrey and his band (two guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums, with Simon Townshend taking Pete's vocals) wisely keeping the famous songs themselves in the foreground, where they rightly belong. On a screen at the rear of the stage, a continual stream of colorful animation conveyed the highlights of the story. For longtime fans (I proudly count myself among them) who have treasured the music of Tommy since its release in 1969, it was both exciting and moving to hear it performed with such a high degree of care and dedication. From "Amazing Journey" to "Pinball Wizard" to "We're Not Gonna Take It," Tommy is a thing of glory and wonder, offering a bold example of rock at its most daring and most imaginative.

The remainder of the performance comprised more songs from the heyday of The Who ("Who Are You," "The Kids Are Alright," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Going Mobile," "Naked Eye," "Young Man Blues," "Baba O'Riley"), two songs ("Days of Light" and "Without Your Love") from Roger Daltrey's own albums, a medley drawn from the songs of Johnny Cash, and "Freedom Ride," a song recorded by Taj Mahal. The evening concluded with Roger Daltrey playing a ukulele and singing "Blue, Red and Grey," a gentle and dreamy song from The Who by Numbers. (He prefaced the song by saying that he "could never get Townshend to do this one onstage.")

It is a matter of yearning and conjecture whether Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will ever perform together as The Who again, but in the meantime, Roger Daltrey is doing his best to mightily uphold the tradition that the two of them (along with their late friends, John Entwistle and Keith Moon) helped to create four decades ago. As he proved in Portland, loudly and wholeheartedly, it is a solid tradition of powerful rock'n'roll, played with strength and honesty, and filled with an abundance of insight and inspiration.