Friday, Feb. 1, 2013
Fans of still active '60s-era rock acts are being faced with some stark choices when their heroes hit the road these days. Instead of "Is it worth shelling out the big bucks to see them?" the question has become "Is this my last chance to see them?" British Invasion legends The Who didn't go so far as to bill the band's current jaunt a "farewell tour" like the one they did in 1982, but with principles Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey both edging ever closer to 70, it's hard to imagine too many more full-blown global treks in their future.
To their credit, instead of simply heading out to flog its deep arsenal of classic rock radio staples, The Who happily decided to revisit what some still hold as Townsend and company's crowning achievement, the 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. The group had used the poignant album depicting a troubled Mod teen's struggle to find meaning in his life as the centerpiece for two past traveling productions, including the original tour that notoriously opened in San Francisco with doomed wildman drummer Keith Moon passing out onstage. A new staging to commemorate the recent four-disc reissue of the grand opus (and the promise of additional hits to close the show) drew a near-capacity crowd to Oracle Arena Friday night.
Usually a band with as much history and as large a catalog of songs as The Who would dispense with having a warm-up act, but fans arriving at Oracle early were treated to an arena-sized set by LA-based soul rockers Vintage Trouble. Sporting a dapper suit, powerful voice and high-energy delivery that evoked James Brown and Otis Redding at their late 1960s peak, charismatic singer Ty Taylor grabbed the audience's attention with the a cappella gospel-tinged beginning to "High Times (They Are Coming)" before the band slammed into an uptempo, greasy blues-rock groove. With Taylor feverishly testifying over guitarist Nalle Colt's Jimmy Page-informed licks, Vintage Trouble sounded like one of the above mentioned soul greats fronting latter-era Yardbirds - particularly when Colt quoted "In My Time of Dying" during the bottleneck blues of "Run Like the River." In their short but intense 30-minute set, the quartet won over a solid contingent of the gathered crowd.
As the lights finally dimmed to the sights and sounds of crashing surf on the projection-screen backdrop during Quadrophenia's ambient recorded intro track "I Am the Sea," the musicians filed onto the stage to an ecstatic roar from the audience. Cued by Daltrey's howl -- "Can you see the real me? Can ya? Can ya?" -- and a trademark overhead twirl of his microphone, the ensemble dug into "The Real Me" with a ferocity that belied the two original members' advancing age. With longtime live bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Zak Starkey ably recreating the muscular rhythms of late four-string virtuoso John Entwistle and the volcanic Moon, Townsend and his brother Simon traded slashing riffs and soaring lead guitar as the group segued into the title song's majestic instrumental overture.
The production's multiscreen setup showed a kaleidoscopic mix of British newsreel footage and'60s performance clips of the band intermixed with real-time onstage action, providing a feast for the eyes throughout the proceedings. Two brass players and three keyboardists helped the group flesh out the intricacies of the material's rich orchestrations, adding to the emotional weight that Daltrey and Townsend brought to their vocal performances. While it was clear neither man could comfortably hit some of the notes they originally sang for "The Punk and the Godfather" and "Is It in My Head?" -- a fact pointed up by Simon Townsend's ringing lead vocal on "Dirty Jobs" - both veterans relied on a weathered, growling delivery that gave the songs a rawness and poignancy that somehow turned those limitations to their advantage.
The band barreled from the passionate intensity of album midpoint "I've Had Enough" -- featuring some of the best shared vocals of the evening between Daltrey and Townsend -- into a charged version of "5:15" that was a highlight of the set. Getting a chance to show why he remains one of his era's most vaunted guitar heroes, Townsend unleashed a visceral solo that fed seamlessly into the first video tribute to one of their lost comrades. A clip of Entwistle's mind-blowing spotlight turn filmed during a performance in 2000 garnered one of the biggest responses of the night.
The momentum continued as a rollicking "Drowned" gave way to the band's salute to Moon, which integrated archival concert footage of the maniacal drummer's cheeky singing on "Bellboy" into the live show. Even after Daltrey hit his first truly rough vocal patch during "Dr. Jimmy," he was able to use the break offered by penultimate instrumental "The Rock" (and a somewhat incongruous montage of recent historical happenings, including the funeral of Princess Diana, the Twin Towers falling, and Occupy Wall Street) to recover and deliver a stirring rendition of "Love Reign O'er Me," complete with its signature closing scream.
If performing the long-neglected album cuts on Quadrophenia energized the band, the extended encore of well-worn (some would argue worn out) hits found things flagging a bit. This may partly have been from Daltrey's continued vocal issues - at one point between songs he told the audience he was allergic to pot smoke and asked them to refrain from firing up; not likely in Oaksterdam, Roger. Townsend brought some fire to the famed guitar intro of "Pinball Wizard," but the versions of "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" seemed condensed and rougher around the edges than most of the songs that preceded them.
It was only when Daltrey and Townsend shared the stage alone for the closing acoustic tune "Tea and Theatre" that The Who recaptured the moving spirit that dominated the performance of Quadrophenia. As Daltrey sang "The story's done; it's getting colder now/ A thousand songs still smolder now," the show took on the feeling of a bittersweet elegy for not just their lost bandmates, but for The Who itself. If this tour does end up being the group's final farewell, Townsend and Daltrey can rest assured they did it right.
"I Am the Sea"
"The Real Me"
"Cut My Hair"
"The Punk and the Godfather"
"The Dirty Jobs"
"Is It in My Head?"
"I've Had Enough"
"Sea and Sand"
"Love, Reign O'er Me"
"Who Are You"
"Behind Blue Eyes"
"Won't Get Fooled Again
"Tea and Theatre"