Live Review: The Whoby Mitch Goldman
Tacoma Dome, Tacoma, WA 10/14/96
A mere three months prior to the Who's restaging of Quadrophenia in London's Hyde Park this past summer, Pete Townshend had stated definitively that he would not be reforming the Who, ever. And, true to his word, the Prince's Trust show and the US shows at Madison Square Garden were billed not as the Who, but rather as "Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Pete Townshend". But by the time Pete decided to take this theatrical realization of his 1973 coming-of-age concept album to 15 cities this fall, the shows were simply billed as "The Who". Maybe it's Pete's artistic prerogative to change his mind, maybe it was a way of generating more ticket sales (the Tacoma Dome was less than half-filled), maybe it was just an excuse to strap on an electric guitar for the first time in years. Whatever the name, the Who proved they could not only bring a temperamental song cycle to life on stage, they also showed there's still some compelling rock left in this on-again, off-again musical relationship.
Sure, the encores were fun (an acoustic "Won't Get Fooled Again"; "Behind Blue Eyes"; Entwhistle's "Boris the Spider"; a spinetingling "Naked Eye", featuring a blistering Townshend solo; and a show-closing, epic "Who Are You"), but it was the staging of Quadrophenia that lies at the heart of the Who show in 1996. Merging video dialogue (the central character, the mod kid Jimmy, is portrayed on screen via between-song narration), a fully expanded band featuring Zach Starkey on drums and Pete's brother Simon Townshend on guitar and vocals (not to mention backup singers and a horn section), the show fleshed out the story of Jimmy, his alienation from his friends and family, his fallen idols (Gary Glitter as the rock godfather, in all his bloated glory, and Billy Idol, hilarious and dead-on as "The Face" who becomes the Bellboy) and ultimately himself. The original album ends with ambiguity, as Jimmy, stranded on a rock in the ocean, contemplates suicide and failed love. In this new version (not surprisingly), Jimmy achieves transcendence during "Love Reign O'er Me", realizing his life hinges on love, and yes, everything will be fine. It's a bit of a cop-out, despite the power of the shows musical climax.
And what music Townshend's electric playing, a change from his all-acoustic performances this summer, was powerful and moving. From the opening blast of "The Real Me" through his gorgeous playing on "Love Reign O'er Me" (with stops along the way like his brilliant solos on "5:15" and "Sea and Sand"), Pete played with commitment and emotion. Truly one of rock's most underrated guitarists, Townshend reminded his fans of one of his nearly-forgotten talents. No smashed axes or felled amps; Pete just played his heart out, putting his soul into every note. Like Neil Young, age seems to have informed his playing in a way that complements, rather than contrasts, with his two-decades-old material.
Age has certainly made Roger Daltrey seem more valid; barely looking forty, still boasting one of rock's most powerful voices (okay, he strained a bit in places, but overall he found his range with the Quadrophenia material more suitably than on the original album), his love of the Who songs apparent with every tune. I was a bit disappointed that Simon Townshend sang much of "The Dirty Jobs", and don't even get me started on Gary Glitter's reading of "The Punk and The Godfather". Maybe Daltrey purposely surrounds himself with inferior vocalists.
And John Entwhistle remains the fluid, melodic bass player he's always been, barely moving a muscle and infusing the music with his frenetic basslines. His solo on "5:15" was more than a token moment but somehow less than revelatory; but then Entwhistle's talent is not as a soloist, but as a masterfully propulsive bottom dweller.
Filled with great band moments ("Sea and Sand", "Dr. Jimmy", the transcendent "Love Reign O'er Me") the show also featured a moving solo spot from Townshend: doing "Drowned" as a solo acoustic piece, Pete stripped bare the artifice that is the story of Quadrophenia, leaving only the raw pain underneath: "let me get back to the ocean/let me get back to the sea/let me be stormy, let me be calm/let the tide in and set me free". If one moment captures the essence of the album, it was this stunningly honest moment from Townshend.
So for a brief moment, two generations were merged as the Who's 1973 vision of their 1960's past was finally realized in 1996. Odd that such elder statesman of rock can telescope time and culture and still seem so relevant, but the Who never were your ordinary huger-than-life rock band. Cathartic, chaotic, and occasionally downright infuriating, but never ordinary.
I Am the Sea->
Won't Get Fooled Again
*with Gary Glitter
Copyright © 1996
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