For those who developed a taste for The Who over the years, last night’s show at the Barclays center in downtown Brooklyn was definitely a special one and probably most of all because it’ll be the last time that The Who will be playing as “The Who” (there are sometimes variations and solo shows) and as those who’ve ever seen them know, there are many reasons why The Who remains legendary.
The Who first played in New York City back in 1967 and have been here many times over the years and have always had a very big and very warm reception here in New York. In the late 60’s they used to make regular stops at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East down in the East Village before they started playing bigger venues and stadium shows. They just played in Uniondale, Long Island last week, Brooklyn and Queens this week, and then they’ll be back to play Madison Square Garden later this year, as the tour winds its way around the country and then ends up back here in the fall.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend are still as passionate about this band and about the feelings behind their songs and what it means to bring those songs to the people who love their music and emotional, anthemic rock and roll in general. Being at a Who show and listening to their great songs that are so classic and seared into so many of us lovers of rock and roll, reminded me of how revolutionary and subversive to square culture rock ‘n roll used to be. Some people have forgotten that The Who was one of the best performances at Woodstock in the summer of 1969 and they’ve always been one of the most intelligent and one of the most important voices in rock and roll history in terms of rebellion and musical visions in our world of forced labor and conservative power levers.
All that aside, since the music industry has now mostly and almost exclusively been turned into just another way to make a living and a way to make money for most bands (even despite their love of music), The Who reminds me of what rock and roll used to be, when it was more of a state of mind and a mission, when it really was a force for radical ideas and quick social changes, not merely entertainment or an immediate visceral fix. So being at a Who show can be a very healing thing for those of us who have become sort of cynical and/or fatigued by the extreme commercialism of music now and feel let down by the overall state of music in recent years. The Who brings forth and presences the inspiration and artistry of profound and meaningful rock music and is a reminder that there’s still a lot more of that spirit of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s floating around than we realize, if we want it.
The Who played so many of their great songs – and they have one of the biggest and most impressive song books in rock and roll history – and you can imagine the songs they chose, maybe: from “My Generation” to “Baba O’Riley – “Love reign over me” – “Behind blue eyes” – “Slip kid” – “I can see for miles” – “You better, You bet” – and even rare jewels like “Eminence front”. The strength of the songs and of Roger Daltrey’s voice and the momentum of the show built strategically and masterfully as the show progressed. The show reminded me of just exactly why the great rock bands like The Who have been great for so long and why The Who are considered among the best popular music of the century. You go to a Who show and you realize just how virtuosic Pete Townshend’s songwriting is and just how accomplished he is as a guitarist and as a rock performer, and how much electricity and excitement Pete and Roger still generate, even as elder statesmen, being that Pete just turned 70 last week and Roger is 71. These guys weren’t just music school kids who got lucky, Roger and Pete were tough kids from the streets of Acton in London and rock and roll was an expression of that, which is why The Who is also considered one of the primary precursors to the punk and new wave movements and some of the social consciousness of the music of the ‘70’s and after that. The Who weren’t just guys on the street who picked up instruments and got a contract – it just so happened that they were also tremendous songwriters and they forged a legacy that is really worthy of all these compliments and of stadium shows and it really still feels special to be able to get to see The Who in this lifetime, and you could really see that reaction in everyone at the show in Brooklyn last night.
After a lot of shows, I think it’s always pretty important to go home and immerse myself in old albums by that band – and doing that with The Who I always realize how blisteringly talented at their instruments all four original members were and are. One of the theories is that the four original members of The Who all played lead: Roger Daltrey was lead vocals, Pete Townsend was on lead guitar (and wrote most of the songs, of course), but Keith Moon and John Entwistle weren’t just the rhythm section, they were also playing their instruments as if they were leads also:
Keith Moon, who is considered the Jimi Hendrix of drums, played with such an amazing abandon and a mercurial style (being that he was self-taught and that no one has been able to figure out what most of his beats actually were) and his furious sound that often sounded like a herd of rhinoceros with the kind of unique Moon magic that those who love Keith Moon know really well. (By the way, those of you who want to see a unique tribute to Keith Moon, try to find the book that takes its name from the kids book Goodnight Moon – called “Goodnight Keith Moon” – great, albeit, tragic.)
John Entwistle, the longtime original bassist for the Who, who died like a rock star in 2002 in a Las Vegas hotel room after a coke binge and some really good sex (they consequently had to cancel the tour that they were just about to start that year) was considered one of the greatest bassists in rock history and this is largely because he also played his bass like a lead guitar (he was originally a guitarist) and Entwistle played some of the most distinctive and beautiful bass lines. Entwistle was also the most level-headed of the Who members, particularly in the early days when he was the glue that kept them together when their rebellious personalities, wild shows, and extreme partying really did threaten to tear the band apart. And Entwistle was the one who always convinced Pete to come back to the fold when Townshend got pissed off, since Pete’s temper didn’t exist solely in his songs.
Even though Keith Moon died in 1978 and John Entwistle in 2002, the spirit of those two rock and roll giants is still very much intact in The Who and as expansive and as important as it ever was. And as quintessential as Moon and Entwistle were, Pete and Roger have always anchored the band with Pete’s songs and Roger’s unique and strong emotional presence up front. Most of the original classic songs were usually marked by emotions from either Pete or Roger and that is probably one of the reasons why they’ve been able to survive 50 years and still sound as great as they ever did, even without the Moon and the Entwistle, such fundamental and inimitable musicians – but then that is really also very much a testament to the greatness of Townshend’s songwriting.
Pete’s younger (by 16 years) brother Simon Townshend has been touring with The Who for a number of years and is also a phenomenal guitarist in his own right and contributes a lot of amazing rhythm and lead guitar to the classic Who songbook performances. I saw Simon play on the Quadrophenia tour in 2012 and then again on this one and my first reaction when I saw Simon play was “Who is this guy playing so intuitively with the Who and who plays the Who songs so flawlessly? Who, goddamn it?” Turned out Pete has a brother who can play guitar just as well as he does. Simon tours and records on his own, outside of the Who, and is an extremely accomplished songwriter.
Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey has been playing drums for The Who, filling in for Keith Moon for some years now and is also the drummer that has best filled the void when Kenney Jones left the band, Kenney Jones having the unenviable and impossible task of being the first Who drummer after Moon died. Kenney Jones has been gone from The Who for quite a few years now, but Zak Starkey has probably filled Moon’s shoes better than anyone who has ever drummed for The Who since Moon’s premature departure. The loveliest thing about it: Keith Moon, a close friend of Zak’s father Ringo, was Zak’s godfather and gave Zak his first drum kit when Zak was only 8 years old.
On to the set list from last night’s show. It occurred as follows:
I Can’t Explain
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O’er Me
A Quick One (While He’s Away)
(with “Captain Walker” snippet from “Overture”)
See Me, Feel Me
(with “Listening To You”, etc.)
Won’t Get Fooled Again
There was no encore but they played for 2 hours and 15 minutes straight through, very gracefully and with some revealing and warming stories from Pete and Roger in between songs, and it was an extremely well-built show and also very adeptly musically directed. Everything on stage worked well and the lights and the background visuals and images complimented the music to seem current and historic simultaneously, without being sentimental or wistful or dated. The crowd was really in a very good mood throughout the show, singing and dancing to most songs… and then it seemed at the end of the show that many were in an even better mood partially because everyone had by then been updated that the New York Rangers were in the third period of winning a very big playoff game over Tampa Bay 7-3. Harmonic convergence for a lot of New Yorkers and Brooklynites there at the arena down on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York City.
The Who is still playing in Queens (Forest Hills stadium) this Saturday, May 30th, and I recommend you go if you’ve never seen the Who before, because this is the final tour and I’m pretty sure they mean it this time. Don’t screw around and deliberate too much about it. Go.