Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Who's on first

Using an astonishing array of technical expertise, The Who turned its classic rock and roll songs into music and video theater at Madison Square Garden in New York last night.

This tour has been billed as "The Who Hits 50,"but since they actually formed around 1963, "50" is a kind of a loose marker. It's also supposed to be yet another farewell tour. (I recall writing about a Who farewell tour in the 1980s.)
Joan Jett with the Blackhearts
     Due to a couple of kind Toronto friends, the 18-year-old daughter and I found ourselves in excellent seats for the show and here I want to salute the opening act, which is often cannon fodder for the headliner. Not this time. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jett is 57, looks fabulous and rocked as hard as ever in a 40-minute set that included the great "I Love Rock and Roll" and her marvelous cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover." Her "I Hate Myself for Loving You" is one of the great titles.

She and The Who also have some history, as a print crawl on a big video screen behind the stage noted that when Jett's fortunes were at a low ebb, The Who's management let her run up a $60,000 recording bill and said, "You can pay us later" -- which she did.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

The video screen at intermission also carried a lovely tribute from The Who to David Bowie, noting he'd been a dedicated follower of the band, even climbing a wall at a London venue to get his first album to Who leader Pete Townshend, and attending many of their shows during his later New York years.

The Garden was full, and pumped for The Who. Advance reviews of this leg of the tour had been good, but show business is never a sure thing.  Even in the anarchic world of 1960s rock and roll, The Who were unpredictable, smashing guitars and hotel rooms with abandon.

In fact, this show was a makeup date for an October postponement as lead singer Roger Daltrey battled a virus. He had just turned 72 and lead guitarist Townshend is 70, for gosh sakes.

The set was impressive as the band took the stage, to enormous applause. Pete, Roger and the boys don't do much these days in the way of costumes (remember the Union Jack jacket from the 60s?), but Madison Square Garden has been revamped to include high-definition video screens behind and flanking the stage, and The Who took full advantage.
The giant video screen behind the stage - mega light.
Opening with "Who Are You?" they did just about the full catalog of great songs throughout a two-hour-plus set, with stunning graphics, videos and photo montages on the huge screens. With original drummer Keith Moon (I wrote his obituary when I was with Associated Press Radio) and bassist John Entwistle gone, Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey filled in on drums and Townshend's brother Simon on guitar.

Townshend and the band were in fine musical form. Maybe he didn't jump as high as in previous years, but he could still windmill his arm and slam those chords. Daltrey, between songs, thanked fans for all their good wishes last fall and had no trouble with his trademark howls on "Baba O'Reilly" and Rain On Me."

They were just in great shape and at their age, that's work and dedication and respect for your audience -- and some luck. The fans included a wide range of ages, from a girl who looked to be about four and sported a pair of noise-dampening headphones to us folks who had been there at the beginning. I think I had a smile on my face for the whole two hours, along with 20,000 other dancing, singing, cheering people.

The 18-year-old knew all the songs, courtesy of the classic rock radio stations played by the elders in her life. However, a montage of events from the last 50 years from Vietnam to 9/11, during Townshend's instrumental "the Rock," resonated most powerfully with me.

As the concert continued, I wondered if we weren't just seeing an energetic version of an oldies show. Townshend is an accomplished writer - surely he was also interested in introducing newer material?

In the end, The Who's work, delivered with conviction and power, stood up. For one thing, in this crazy election year, we can all hope we "Won't Get Fooled Again."