What a difference 27 years makes.
Last time I saw the Who, it was 1989. Only Keith Moon was in the grave, and the band was just beginning to stoop and gray. During "My Generation," Roger Daltrey sang, "Hope I die before I get older." Pete Townsend wore a beehive of a bandage over his hand where he'd wounded himself on the whammy bar while windmilling the night before.
The Who were slated to hit Moda Center last year, but doctors ordered Daltrey to rest due to viral meningitis. He's since recovered and looked in good health at last night's rescheduled show, and both he and Pete Townshend took time out to thank the fans for their patience.
Townshend also looked and played well. At 70, he's still a rhythm guitar ace and affable on the mic. All together, it's an eight-piece band including the two surviving original members. Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey has been the drummer for 20 years now and admirably does his own thing rather than mechanically aping Moon's irreplaceable style and antics.
I want to keep saying nice things. The light show was excellent. The background was one large video feed that stylishly projected the band and audience at arena-sized scale. The sound was cavernous at first but came into focus after only a few songs.
The set opened with "Who Are You" performed a bit slower than the album version. I'm used to elder statesmen conserving their energy at the beginning of the show, and that strategy was definitely in effect, as the band checked off hits like "The Seeker" and "The Kids Are Alright." But by the time they got to the group's first major U.S. hit, "I Can See For Miles," the lackluster energy—from the band and the audience—became impossible to ignore.
I don't mean to slam these guys. The Who is one of my favorite bands ever. The reality is that 50 years is a long time to play music. Perhaps it works for an old bluesman to play until he falls off his chair. But for a band that made its name on vitality and explosive performances and smashed equipment, this was a very tame, state fair-level gig. Nothing was terribly off. The backing musicians were fantastic–especially the vocal harmonies provided by all the keyboard players. Pino Palladino's bass work was superb. Daltrey was generally in key, even if his reflexes had a tough time keeping up with his classic mic-swings.
Anyway, the energy finally bristled when Townshend told a story about having to play with Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, and the subsequent version of "My Generation" actually rocked. The overture, aka "The Rock" from Quadrophenia, shone the best light on The Who—which is to say that seven players working instrumentally was more magical than anything that happened when Daltrey was singing. In particular, Starkey threw down a truly climactic (and brief) drum solo during the finale of "Won't Get Fooled Again."
In the end, there was no encore. The audience didn't deserve it. They'd been served their pudding without asking for meat. They perked up for "Pinball Wizard" and sang along to "Baba O'Riley" but the only teenagers they know in this wasteland are their grandchildren.
All photos by Thomas Teal.