For a couple of decades, I've resisted going to concerts by legendary Rock bands and icons I've loved who keep touring without much in the way of new material. I'd rather remember The Rolling Stones via video footage of their ’60 and early ’70s peak. I'd rather see The Who when there was an element of chaos and danger, when Keith Moon might pass out and have to be replaced by an eager fan pulled from the audience at the last minute. I'd rather remember The Beatles circa their post-touring years, via footage from their post-"Fab Four" days, working on arty videos and even artier music.
I've seen a lot of footage from The Rolling Stones live in the past nearly 30 years ago and it really set this resistant tone for me. Even back on the tours behind Tattoo You, the Stones largely just seemed to be chugging along for the cash. The most infuriating thing to me has always been their double-speed rendition of classics like "Satisfaction," as if they're just trying to get them out of the way. (To their credit, they seem to be fond of dragging out some "deeper cuts" at more recent shows, which adds at least a little freshness to their stale cavalcade of hits.)
It has to be a bit of a dilemma for some aging legends. The majority of fans want just the hits; they're the ones who complain of Facebook that a certain show was "OK, but they didn't play ___________! So it sucked." The Rolling Stones have a little bit of new material every few years that they'll drop into the set to keep things interesting for the members (or they'll dig out those deeper cuts). Paul McCartney does a total crowd-pleaser concert, basically performing the same exact stage show for seemingly 20 years and running through those classic Beatles/Wings tunes that are guaranteed to bring any house down. McCartney seems more a "give the people what they want" showman, and his performance is note perfect and flawless. I've always respected British Punkish-Pop-turned-Classical-Pop singer/songwriter Joe Jackson for the way he found to keep things interesting — never play every song the same way on every tour. His great live album, Live 1980/86, featuring four concerts from different eras is a brilliant example of this — there are four totally different versions of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" It's interesting to the players and the die-hard fans. (Casual fans would rather hear the version on the original recording without variation).
The Who has done greatest hits runs and has only released a handful of new recordings in the past 30 years. But they have enough ambitious, grand projects in their impeccable discography that they can pull out, they're capable of doing special shows like the one on their current tour which finds the surviving members (and friends) performing the Quadrophenia album in full.
The Who's sporadic tours of late have often had some special "hook" that, presumably, keeps things interesting for the members who have played "My Generation" approximately 4 billion times. Townshend often makes some comment after a tour that it might be the last. He doesn't seem interested in the greatest hits revue. At Louisville's concert and sports palace, the KFC Yum! Center, The Who — well, original living members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, plus a cast of backing musicians that included Ringo Starr's overachieving bad-ass drummer son Zak Starkey on the skins and Pete's brother Simon Townshend becoming more of a presence on guitar and occasional vocals — played Quadrophenia in full (as they've done with Tommy) and I couldn't help but think that the artistic challenge of performing the group's second notable Rock Opera in full was enough to get Townshend to sign on. And enough to keep The Who on the road.
The Quadorphenia performance was excellent. The band played through without talking or really pausing for a breath, playing the double album from start to finish. This seemed to cause some uneasiness for some in attendance who didn't get the memo about the Quadrophenia-heavy performance and seemed just ready to hear "Teenage Wasteland" and "Squeeze Box." But the crowd, en masse, eventually warmed to the presentation, particularly the "hits" like "5:15," "The Real Me" and a jaw-dropping performance of "Love Reign O'er Me," the story-cycle's emotional climax and finale.
Part of making the medicine go down smoother was the barrage of video clips and photographs of, well, everything. There was plenty of old Who footage and lots of clips of late members Keith Moon and John Entwistle, plus some interesting visual effects involving rain and ocean waves during interludes (like on the album, but visualized). They also included a pair of lengthy montages from the entire history of Western Civilization since WWII. We were treated to images of the Berlin Wall falling, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and other U.S. presidents, war footage. It was a history class presented quick-cut style.
While these video gimmicks were attention-grabbing — everyone likes to watch historical/pop cultural montages — it didn't make much sense in the context of the story. I mean, I suppose EVERY contemporary story told has SOME connection to the entire history of the modern world. But the band was playing a thematic piece of work that told a real, actual story. Why not advance that story? It's a good one, weaving a tale about a common 1960s young man trying to find his way in the world and eventually becoming disillusioned and losing his mind. Maybe they wanted the words to do the talking … in which case, the footage (while visually compelling) was pointless wallpaper.
But most importantly, the band played the album well. It was in essentially the same arrangement as the original album, but with a few interesting added elements. The group's tribute to Keith Moon on "Bell Boy" — during which Moon's vocal part was stitched in seamlessly, with him floundering about in concert with his headphones and sticks to grab the mic and sing (via video) — was touching (and also not spoiler-alerted during the group's performance of it during the Sandy Hook benefit concert). The vocals were laid in over top of the band, so they were basically doing the Elvis-via-film "concerts" where "he" plays with his old bandmates. But it was touching (Daltrey gazed at his old friend lovingly) and an emotional high point of the show.
As was the tribute to the group's stunning bassist John Entwistle. The band gave The Ox a "solo" mid-song and it was disorienting in its brilliance, as Entwistle performed a spine-tingling barrage of bass acrobatics — of course with his trademark deadpan stare making it looking even more effortless. The footage was shot on cameras at an old show placed at the head of his bass and in front of him. Watching his fingers move across the frets was like watching a ballet of finger-work. Greatest Rock & Roll bassist of all time — no contest.
I developed a new appreciation for how hard Roger Daltrey works singing a two-hour plus concert. Unlike Entwistle, he made it look hard … but it was valiant and he hit almost ever note. A few lines would be "jazzily" redirected to avoid a few of the harder notes … but he nailed most of the important ones. By the time they got to love "Reign o'er Me," one of Rock's best, more underrated vocal performances ever, I had to tip my hat. You can tell he's doing everything he can to keep that voice in the best shape possible — there was a warning posted on the screens before the show announcing Roger's allergies, which, it said, would have a detrimental effect on his singing (the notice playfully suggested sticking to brownies). He had some sort of humidifier looking device behind him pumping steam the whole show and, though he played it off like a pro, he seemed a little lost when his in-ear monitors broke down twice during the performance. During the second-to-last song, "Won't Get Fooled Again," Daltrey stopped singing at one point and the band seemed thrown, but quickly recovered. Roger didn't look happy but he eventually came back to better spirits.
Pete Townshend has long been my ultimate Rock & Roll hero — he embodied Rock & Roll to me growing up and I've never grown tired of his songwriting. Pete has a rep for being a grump, but he was downright jolly in Louisville, windmills flying regularly. He joked towards the end about how he could now "jump up and land at the same time," promising to go nuts and act like he was 16 again for the next tune. He never quite managed lift-off — a trademark of his old days, when he'd tuck his knees and jump a good five feet straight up, landing on a big chord or final note. He's technically a senior citizen – the fact that he could roam around the stage and show some intensity is impressive enough. (And, as the man who has written Tommy and "Substitute" and "A Quick One," I'd give him a total pass if he'd decided to play laying down on a bed in the center of the stage.)
After the group finished Quadrophenia, they didn't even leave the stage. Pete, like an orchestra conductor might, spoke to the audience about their performance and introduced the great back-up players (which included a horn section and a pair of keyboard wizards). The group then ran through a stream of hits that, at least in terms of intensity, fed into my old fears that seeing my idols past-prime might replace a good memory with bad ones. The versions of "Who Are You," "Pinball Wizard," "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," weren't "bad," but, miraculously, had a couple of sloppy moments. I actually liked that — I'd stay home and listen to the albums if I wanted perfection — but it seemed like the band was ready to go back to the hotel. The power chords more often than not lacked the "power" element. They just weren't stepping into it — they were lightly breezing through.
The full band left and Roger and Pete did one of their few newer songs, an acoustic number about growing older, friendship, tea … and theatre (apparently), called "Tea & Theatre." As on the Hurricane Sandy benefit show, it seemed an odd closer, though it was sweet. These two old friends who have hated each other at times over the years seem at peace with The Who's legacy and their own partnership.
Townshend announced that Roger had arranged the whole Quadrophenia performance, which immediately made me believe Daltrey brought the idea to Townshend, knowing he'd have a better chance presenting something his old mate would find challenging if he wanted to go on a "Who tour" again. Daltrey could've staged it himself, but I envision him going to Pete and saying, "I do this one my own, I'm doing casinos and theaters; you come with and it's a lucrative arena tour."
Like all bands with longevity, The Who have found a dynamic that seems to work. It's something every enduring band has to come to peace with – from The Stones to The Black Crowes to Pearl Jam, all bands that seem to have realized they need each other to do their job most effectively (and profitably). Once they find that peace, they seem much happier. The Crowes have split or taken long breaks numerous times, but they know their future is like Keith and Mick's — they need to tour together because that's what their fans (and customers) desire. And Pearl Jam fairly early on seemed to come to an understanding that their place is on the road and together. They seem happy these days and you rarely hear them complain about "fame" anymore (as Mr. Vedder had been known to do at one time). They even play songs they've played millions of times — like "Alive" and "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" and "Black" — with passion, fire and smiles on their faces. They have inherited a bit of "Uncle Paul's" crowd-pleaser genes.
All of these artists seem in a good place in terms of tending to their legacy, finding what works best for them. The Who seemed that way as well Saturday night in Louisville, but I left wondering "What's next?" Might this really be a farewell tour. They've been doing them since the early ’80s, but if Pete and Roger don't come up with an approach that satisfies their artistic/performance needs, I wouldn't be shocked to hear that they've decided to call it quits after this round of travel.
While my personal concerns about seeing some of my favorite artists before they are no longer able to perform have been both confirmed and assuaged at shows by The Who and McCartney, I'm still happy I've seen those artists play in my lifetime. I've now decided to look at it like those fans who wanted to see early musical icons like Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or Charles Mingus or any legendary player play one more time before he or she passed away — I'm sure they might not have been spellbinding, but I'm also sure it gave great joy to those fans who saw them.
And I've also realized that there's nothing wrong with indulging your nostalgic instincts in these situations. There's room in most of our minds for multiple memories about the same people. I will remember Pete and Roger killing it on The Smothers Brothers show and I can remember them keeping the spirit live almost 50 years later in Louisville … and neither memory has to cancel the other out.
I'm saving my pennies now to see The Stones.