By Brian Ives
“I’m sure I’ve been here been before!” Pete Townshend exclaimed, as he sauntered on stage for the beginning of the Who‘s latest New Jersey show, accompanied by Roger Daltrey and their touring band: John Corey on piano, Loren Gold on keyboards, Pino Palladino on bass, Frank Simes on keyboards, Zak Starkey on drums, and Pete’s brother Simon Townshend on guitars.
In fact, Pete has been there: the Who performed at Newark’s Prudential Center just a few years ago on their Quadrophenia tour. Townshend was thinking of New Jersey in general though: “When I think of this place, I think of the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, and some up-and-coming lad watching from the side of the stage… what was his name?” That up-and-coming lad, he revealed, was Bruce Springsteen.
The Capitol Theatre was shuttered long ago, Springsteen has not been classified as “up-and-coming” for a long time, and it’s been decades since the Who was playing theaters. Indeed, this is the latest of the many tours that the band has done since reuniting in 1989, and most of those shows have taken place at arenas and stadiums. They’ve only released one album and a few odd tracks in all of those decades, yet they still manage to consistently sell out huge venues all these years later.
The two hour show, which didn’t feature any post-reunion material, was a good indication of why they remain such a hot ticket: it was packed with radio classics and a few beloved album cuts. Everyone in the audience, which was mostly older fans, but younger generations were represented as well, knew not only every word to every song, but every power chord, every drum fill.
They opened with one of their most recent classics – that would be 1978’s “Who Are You” from the album of the same name, and then went into a bunch of their mod-era ’60s hits: “The Seeker,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “I Can See for Miles,” “My Generation”; they then darted to the ’70s with Quadrophenia‘s “The Real Me” and then returned to their early days for “Pictures of Lily.”
Both Daltrey and Townshend often spoke to the audience between songs, Daltrey with somewhat more warmth: before “The Kids Are Alright,” he talked about living in “what you’d call the projects” while the band was working on their first album. “I was married; it didn’t work,” but he noted that the child he’d had with his wife did, in fact, turn out alright.
Townshend said that “I Can See For Miles” was “one of the best songs that I’d written at that point” in 1965. “We were struggling to have a hit in the U.S. This was our first hit in this fine country,” he said. “I should be a bit more sincere: Our first hit in this f—ing amazing country.” He joked “And let’s be honest, most of you weren’t even born yet!” (Guilty as charged.)
After that, the band tore through some of their ’70s classics — “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Bargain” (which Townshend said was his favorite song from Who’s Next) and “Join Together.”
The crowd ate it all up, and even the sometimes curmudgeonly Townshend seemed to have fun. But he appears to have to continuously remind himself to be grateful for the situation that he’s in: in a Rolling Stone interview last year, he expressed extreme ambivalence about touring, and before “You Better You Bet” he confessed to sometimes not wanting to be on tour, “But I’m grateful to be here tonight!”
From there, they did a mini-set of Quadrophenia songs: “I’m One,” “The Rock,” and “Love Reign O’er Me.” No, Daltrey can’t quite hit those notes at the end of “Reign,” but he cleverly retooled the vocal arrangement at the end of the song so that he wouldn’t have to match his 20-something self’s mind blowing performance.
On the subject of Quadrophenia, Townshend said, “It’s a drag that there aren’t albums anymore, because there’s no way you’d hear something like that [today].” He said even if the best band in the world put out an album with the scope of Quadrophenia, “You wouldn’t give it the time.”
“I shouldn’t lecture you about how music should be today… but if Quadrophenia came out today, probably no one would notice it.” Whether or not that’s true – perhaps he should try out recent albums by Chris Stapleton, Kendrick Lamar, St. Vincent, Jack White, the Black Keys or Jason Isbell – it does seem that lengthy and ambitious albums are the exception rather than the rule. But, he noted, times change, and they’ve changed for the Who as well. Multiple images of their fallen bandmates — drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle — flashed on the screen throughout the night, a reminder that while there were eight musicians on stage, only half of the Who still walks the earth. Townshend no longer plays with the fury he had on, say, Live at Leeds, but how could you expect him to? His lead guitar playing remains exciting and innovative, particularly during the stretched out segments of “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Daltrey defies age, and still is a heroically iconic lead singer. The rest of the touring band is great as well, but the band’s not-so-secret weapon is drummer Starkey, who has an effect on the Who that Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks did on the Allman Brothers Band. He’s a replacement player who has come to be as important as the principals; his playing gives them the edge of a much younger band and it’s hard to imagine a Who gig without him.
The show began to wind down with the “newest” song that they played all night, 1982’s “Eminence Front” from It’s Hard, followed by a set of Tommy songs, “Amazing Journey,” “Sparks,” “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me.”
They saved their biggest hits for last: Who’s Next‘s “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (and on the latter, Daltrey did pretty much nail his “YEEEEEEEEAAAAHH!” at the end of the song).
In the aforementioned Townshend interview, he seemed unsure whether or not this would be the band’s last tour (while acknowledging that the tour is being sold as their final trek). But it seems that, in their 70s, there’s only so long he and Daltrey can go on for. But if you have a chance to see them on this tour, it’s well worth your time and money.