The local stop on The Who’s latest (and maybe, this time, actual) farewell tour had me considering a big paradox at the band’s heart – one I think is mostly a strength.
You could find it in their opening number last night. “Who Are You?” was valorized first as an 1978 AOR hit, and more recently as TV theme music. The band roared (as it would all night, often beautifully) and the crowd sang along. But even as a life-long Who fan, I still find the song’s last verse startling (surely moreso now than when I first heard it as a teenager):
I know there’s a place you walk where love falls from the trees
My heart is like a broken cup, I only feel right on my knees
Courtesy of The Who
Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey on an earlier tour stop
I spit out like a sewer hole and still receive your kiss
How can I measure up to anyone now after such a love as this?
This, in one interpretation, is Pete Townshend laying bare his conflicted feelings about his relationship with his audience. It’s one of his great themes, and among his fellow British Invasion songwriters, maybe only John Lennon wrote with similarly brutal honesty.
But as often as with any band ever, the sentiments of The Who’s lyrics have been gainsaid by the band’s huge sound: The Who, after all, made its name playing at festivals (Monterey and Woodstock) and pioneered both power chords and (for better and worse) arena rock. But perhaps the most important factor here is Roger Daltrey, whose often cocky vocals can turn confessions into anthems.
That approach made songs of vulnerability from “I Can’t Explain” to “The Real Me” and “Who Are You?” at once more palatable and more interesting, the latter because of the internal tension it created. Where’s there room for the most self-searching of lyrics in a 110-decibel heavy-rock song? At a Who concert.
But fans, of course, didn’t come to ponder paradox. They came to see the Who’s remaining two original members play the hits one last time, and last night they saw them do it notably well. Both Townshend and Daltrey are past 70, but Daltrey was in strong voice and Townshend can still raise the roof with his Strat, as on a resourceful extended jam on “My Generation.”
Not a single song was under 35 years old, and more than half the intermissionless two-hour set was drawn from just three albums — Tommy
(1968), Who’s Next
(’71) and Quadrophenia
(’73) — but that didn’t matter, either. A crack band including Pino Palladino on bass and longtime drummer Zak Starkey made it all come alive, including unexpected number “The Rock,” an instrumental from Quadrophenia
. Other old faves included an acoustic "I'm One" (sung by Townshend), "The Kids Are Alright" and "I Can See For Miles."
Speaking of the rhythm section, someone who had wandered into Consol unbriefed and got most of his or her visual info from the massive upstage video screen could have been forgiven for mistakenly thinking that duo still comprised Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Images of those two original members loomed large and frequently. (A still of Moon in a wig and bustier was the amusing visual for “Pictures of Lily.”)
The video show was mostly effective, including some trippy animations and some very early (and soundless) black-and-white footage of the band playing in a club (first glimpsed in the 2015 documentary Lambert & Stamp
). It's one thing to show family-album style images of the band's history pre-concert. But after a while, the in-concert focus on guys who died 38 and 14 years ago, respectively, though surely meant affectionately, felt a little weird, if not creepy.
Still, if that’s the worst you can say about a band's 50th-anniversary rock show, it’s not so bad.