September 20, 2019
I love some of the newer bands. I think they are or will be the life blood that sustains Rock. Greta Van Fleet, Rival Sons, Badflower, Dirty Honey and others have all reinvigorated Rock with their return to the bluesy or punk guitar-centric driven sounds. I keep waiting for even more new bands to come in the picture as well. Conversely, a lot of people still cling to Classic Rock. I get that – it’s what a lot of people grew up with. Here’s the problem though: as much as Classic Rock is a staple on radio as well as satellite or other media, I think it will eventually be what kills Rock unless life is pumped into it by newer bands. Hopefully these new bands and others will carry the torch; lest we be stuck with the regurgitated, recycled Pop and Hip/Hop that pollutes the airwaves. That being said, I think that some of the older bands could teach the newer bands a little bit on how it’s done. Case in point: The Who played to a near sellout crowd recently at New York’s Madison Square Garden. These guys are in their seventies, yet they still rocked nearly as hard as they did fifty years ago. If you’ve seen the footage of them playing at Woodstock in 1969 and saw them today, they haven’t lost much (besides their hair.)
The last time I saw The Who (and I’m really dating myself here) was 1979 – at this very same venue, almost to the day. I still have my ticket from that show. I don’t remember much about that day except for a few things. I had a splitting headache the entire day and the best Pastrami-on-rye sandwich in my life at a restaurant I never found again – and the concert. Still, I felt lucky that I got to see them that year. Tickets for that series of nights at MSG were only available by mail. I sent in my money and hoped I would get tickets, which I did. I ordered four and sold three of them. One of the tickets I sold was to a friend of mine who promptly lost it on the way to the show because he was waving it around as he was riding in a taxi to the venue shouting “I’m going to see The Who, I’m going to see The Who” repeatedly. Well, he didn’t get to see The Who… Doh!
The band had been through a traumatic period in the year leading up to the tour. They had just lost their drummer – the enigmatic Keith Moon the year before. They decided to carry on with Kenny Jones from The Faces manning the sticks. The band played all of their most famous songs as well as cuts from the “Who Are You” album, which had been released just before Moon’s death in 1978. After that concert I really didn’t think about it that much. It was great but I had seen some other great bands that year, they were just one of them.
Fast forward to 2019; The Who had already played a summer tour – appropriately named “Movin’ On,” because that’s what this band does. They just keep on rocking. Even with the death of bassist John Entwistle in 2002 they kept the band going, because they knew that both Moon and Entwistle would have wanted it that way. The stop at MSG was the beginning of the fall leg of this tour, set to go on through October. They came on promptly at 8:30 and proceeded to let us all know that they were as good as they ever have been. Roger Daltrey still has the booming voice. He still does that blood-curdling scream towards the end of “Love Reign O’er Me”. He still whips that microphone around at lightning speed, even letting it wrap completely around him at one point. They endured equipment issues (Daltrey’s ear monitors were only letting him hear out of one ear and Pete Townsend ripping a fingernail doing his trademark windmills) but didn’t let that didn’t stop them. They made light of the issues and kept moving on. Pete Townsend was hilarious, telling the audience that he could still play the show but when he went to bed that night he knew his finger would pulsate in a pinging effect the whole night, keeping him awake.
The first six songs were all from the “Tommy” album and they made full use of the orchestra. To hear songs like “Overture” and “Sparks” with an orchestra was just amazing. “Pinball Wizard” was followed by the classic “Who Are You?” After the first ten songs the orchestra took a break and just the band played with Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son) on drums, Pete’s brother Simon on guitar and John Button on bass. They showed they could still rock as a five-piece, playing early songs such as “Substitute” and one of my faves – “The Seeker.” Yes, Townsend still plays guitar, hard and loud. He still does his famous windmills and occasionally his patented cannonball leaps. His gear consisted of Fender equipment on electric – Stratocasters and Twins, along with Gibson acoustics. He gave up the weighty Les Pauls years ago. You can see one of them at the Met at the “Play it Loud” exhibit in New York, still running for a few more weeks.
When the orchestra returned the band cruised through a series of “Quadrophenia” tunes such as “The Real Me”, “The Punk and the Godfather” and “5:15”; all of which sounded sensational with a full orchestra. The previously mentioned “Love Reign O’er Me” sounded especially amazing. They closed, as they almost always do with “Baba O’Riley” as the audience shouted “they’re all wasted” at the appropriate moment.
As amazing as this show was, the treat for me was to see Townsend. He is a pioneer, one of the first users of distortion and feedback. He helped usher in the age of the Marshall stack, working closely with Jim Marshall to create the first fifty and one hundred-watt amps. He still coaxes feedback out of his Strat and though he uses Fender amps now he still has that distinctive tone and vibrato that is his alone. His playing fits in perfectly with the orchestra and his songs sound like they were made for it. An early adapter of synthesizers, he made them integral parts of his songs, which without them, wouldn’t have sounded nearly as groundbreaking and fresh.
I don’t know why I waited so long to see The Who again but it was worth it. Even if you aren’t a huge Who fan, when you hear them you realize you know these songs. You’ll find yourself either singing along with them or playing air guitar, tapping your foot as if playing the drums or just becoming immersed in the music. The Who ranks right up there with The Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin in their creativity, uniqueness and panache. They are one of the great icons of Rock. Hopefully these young bands can learn to be what The Who already are – unique in their creativity and with a sound all their own. If you get the chance to see them this tour do so, they are worth checking out.
What’s your favorite concert you’ve seen this year?