5/26/2016

The Who: Saying Goodbye, But Not Going Quietly

On the evening of May 17, 2016, The Who brought their 50th anniversary tour (slickly marketed as "THE WHO HITS 50!") to the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. It is being promoted as (and quite probably is) the final tour of its kind that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey will undertake as The Who, so their current string of shows carries more weight, and conveys a much deeper feeling of musical history, than usual. Although Pete Townshend, when speaking to Uncut in 2015, made casual reference to The Who as an "immense, monolithic money generator," there was a time, distant now, when the four members of The Who were generally regarded, at least by their dedicated fans if not by themselves, as being something worthier than merely a gaggle of greedy businessmen on the make, and their abiding fame is derived from that bygone period.

Whether Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey on their own, without John Entwistle or Keith Moon, can honestly be accepted as "The Who," is only one of the many awkward questions that might be raised in regard to this tour. One might also dare to put forward this question: Are Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey merely a pair of elderly rockers, shamelessly seeking to extract as much money as they can from the pockets of their ever compliant fans, or are they two living examples of rock'n'roll at its undaunted best, courageously refusing to surrender the domain of their fiery music to the uncomfortable demands of advanced age? In truth, a strong case can be made either way, and therein lies a thorny problem for fans of a thoughtful persuasion. (Of course, the same question applies to Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and all the other ancient multimillionaires whose overblown tours afford them the opportunity to hugely increase their unseemly wealth.)

The Who, from their beginnings as figures of mod style in London, England, in the early 1960s, always have been adamantly unafraid to go against the grain. They always did whatever they wanted to do, even if, sometimes, it happened to be contrary to their own interests. The sharp conflict that resulted from the unstable combination of their fearless personalities served to define the fierce character of their music, and helped to set them apart from more easygoing musicians. Nowadays, with the frailties of old age settling on them, it seems reasonable to presume that, as men in their seventies, Pete and Roger have mellowed to some degree, but that is not to say that they have become gentler, or any less determined, in the application of their musicianship. They still have the ability to create an artful noise, and they still refuse to be anything other than themselves. Their unbowed willfulness still declares itself in every song.
 
After Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and the other musicians casually walked onto the stage at 8:45 PM, the show quickly kicked off with "Who Are You," a rousing song from their last album with Keith Moon, followed by "The Seeker." Roger Daltrey then spoke to the audience, explaining the background of the next song, "The Kids Are Alright," after which Pete Townshend addressed the crowd, explaining what The Who were doing in 1967 (touring the USA for the first time and appearing at the Monterey International Pop Festival with Jimi Hendrix), taking the band into "I Can See for Miles," followed by "My Generation" (the bold single that made their name in 1965), "Squeeze Box," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Bargain" (which Pete described as being his "favorite song from Who's Next"), "Join Together" (a single released in 1972 and conceived as part of the ill-fated Lifehouse), and "You Better You Bet."

Next came a handful of songs from Quadrophenia: "I'm One" (a heartfelt performance by Pete Townshend), "The Rock," and "Love, Reign O'er Me" (a major composition that allows Roger Daltrey to sing with a full range of unrestrained expression). "Eminence Front" preceded a glorious run of immortal songs from Tommy, with "Amazing Journey," "Sparks," "The Acid Queen" (another standout performance by Pete), "Pinball Wizard," and "See Me, Feel Me" all summoning up warm memories of the late 1960s, the fertile years in which Pete Townshend's talent fully blossomed and he came into his own as a serious composer, thereby enabling The Who to ascend to the height of their collective abilities and achieve lasting greatness. The show concluded with a double knockout of "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," two mighty songs from Who's Next that represent the music of The Who at its most compelling.

Among the musicians who supported Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey during the performance were Simon Townshend (Pete's younger brother) on guitar, Pino Paladino (standing in for John Entwistle) on bass, and Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) on drums, along with Loren Gold (keyboards), John Corey (keyboards), and Frank Simes (musical director, keyboards). The sound, at least as my ears received it on the floor of the Moda Center, could have been better, with the primary impression being one of overwhelming volume and continual muddiness. (Granted that I am discussing a performance by The Who, not a pleasant offering of dignified waltzes by the Vienna Philharmonic, but even rock'n'roll is deserving of a chance to be heard properly.) Pete and Roger both spoke to the audience before they left the stage, conveying their thanks to the thousands of fans in attendance.

When The Who were at their absolute peak, in the 1960s and 1970s, they were widely esteemed as the strongest performers in all of rock'n'roll, playing their music for hours at a time, with a ceaseless vigor that almost defied belief. Those days were a long time ago, and it is easily understandable that Pete Townshend, in particular, no longer is able to perform as actively as he did when he was a much younger man. The frantic leaps that regularly highlighted Pete's youthful performances do not happen any more, but he still handles his electric guitar with a marked savagery, wildly swinging his arm at his red Stratocaster as if he was seeking frenzied vengeance against a sworn enemy. Roger Daltrey also continues to project a feeling of righteous power when he is onstage, and his boisterous voice, as rough-and-ready as ever, still comes across with most of its raw force intact.

Any misgivings or complaints notwithstanding, it was an undeniable thrill to see Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey onstage together, performing the formidable songs that constitute the foundation of their towering reputation. (It also should be mentioned that fans in Portland had been waiting eight months to attend the show, after an earlier show was canceled last September, along with the bulk of their tour in 2015, as a result of an illness on the part of Roger Daltrey.) What they accomplished during the heyday of The Who has endured and is unlikely to be matched by any other musicians at any time in the future, and for that reason, they have earned a due measure of renown. If, as they claim, this is to be their final tour together as The Who, they are making it abundantly clear that they have no intention of going quietly.