By John Curley
The Who’s 50th anniversary tour resumed earlier this month after having been postponed in the autumn due to an illness to lead singer Roger Daltrey. The tour pulled into the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, March 19th. Because of the name of the arena’s corporate sponsor, the venue, which is home to the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and Seton Hall University’s basketball team, is also known locally as “The Rock.” And that nickname took on a slightly different meaning on March 19th as the veteran British band shook the arena to its foundations with their outstanding concert.
The night of music kicked off with a well-received 40-minute set by the Australian-born singer-songwriter Tal Wilkenfeld. Wilkenfeld, who sang lead vocals and played bass, was backed up by her talented three-piece band. Wilkenfeld’s atmospheric music combines somewhat heavy blues-rock with progressive elements, and it sounds like a cross between Yes and Fleetwood Mac.
Following a break of about 30 minutes, The Who took the stage to thunderous cheers. The backing musicians came out first and got into their positions as Daltrey and Pete Townshend slowly walked onstage. Townshend, wearing a porkpie hat and sunglasses, approached his microphone and said, with a bit of a mock sneer, “I’m in no hurry.” He then spoke a bit about how playing in New Jersey always reminds him of the 1979 show that The Who did at the old Capitol Theatre in Passaic when Bruce Springsteen came to see them and watched their show from the side of the stage.
From the opening number, “Who Are You,” it was clear that the audience was in for a stellar performance. Daltrey was in good voice, and Townshend’s playing was very aggressive. He did his patented windmill move several times during “Who Are You.” The crowd cheered throughout, and the band seemed to feed on that energy. A large video screen above the stage showed films and images that played along with each song, while smaller screen to the left and right of the stage showed the performance, with numerous close-up shots of the musicians.
The non-album single “The Seeker” was up next, and it provided a great vocal showcase for Daltrey. Both Daltrey and Townshend spoke to the crowd quite a bit throughout the show. Prior to the performance of the third song, “The Kids Are Alright,” Daltrey said that when he first heard Townshend’s demo of the song in 1965, he thought that the song was about him and the situation in his less-than-happy first marriage. And the performance of “The Kids Are Alright” was terrific, highlighted by great efforts from the backing musicians. The film that played on the big screen while the song was performed featured footage from the 1979 Quadrophenia film of Phil Daniels’ Jimmy character riding a scooter along the white cliffs of Beachy Head, England. The footage was altered to show images of The Who and large arrows on the white cliffs. It was quite effective.
Townshend then stepped up to the microphone and spoke to the crowd about 1967’s “I Can See For Miles” being the band’s first chart hit in the United States and how it helped to break the band into the American market. The aggressive performance of the song that followed was thrilling and gave one a sense of what it must have been like to see The Who live in their early years. This was followed by a spiky, punky take on the classic “My Generation” that was highlighted by Townshend’s playing of short, sharp bursts on his Stratocaster. The film that was shown on the big screen backing the performance of “My Generation” was of Mods dancing in a London club in 1964. That film that was shot by The Who’s original managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. (The story of the duo’s management of The Who is chronicled in the recent film Lambert And Stamp, a must see for Who fans.)
Before playing “The Real Me,” Townshend lamented that albums aren’t as valued by the listening public as they once were and opined that if The Who’s masterpiece, Quadrophenia, were released today, nobody would hear it in its entirety. The performance of “The Real Me” was very good apart from the bass being too low in the mix. John Entwistle’s bass part dominated the original recording of the song, so it suffers a bit when the bass is de-emphasized in a live performance of it. It must be said that Zak Starkey’s drumming on “The Real Me,” and throughout the entire concert, was outstanding. Starkey, the song of Ringo Starr, is a great fit for The Who and a worthy heir to the spot once held by the late Keith Moon. Starkey’s father and Moon were great friends, and Starkey’s first drum kit was a gift from Moon. The influence of Moon clearly shows in Starkey’s aggressive, take-no-prisoners drumming.
Prior to The Who becoming known as a band that made terrific albums, their notoriety came from their knack of creating great power-pop singles. Daltrey spoke of that to the crowd before they performed “Pictures Of Lily” and of how those classic singles penned by Townshend always told an interesting story. The airing of “Pictures Of Lily” was top notch complete with perfect backing vocals. The comic image shown on the large screen during “Pictures Of Lily” was one of Moon dressed in drag.
Of all rock bands, The Who were probably the best at mixing furious aggression with deep introspection. At the Newark show, this was shown in their performance of “Behind Blue Eyes.” It started out slow and a bit dreamy and later on exploded into full-on punk-style heavy duty rock. And it was another vocal showcase for Daltrey, who played acoustic guitar on the song.
The highlight of the night came with the performance of “Bargain.” It was quite incredible, with Daltrey, Townshend, and Starkey all turning in fantastic performances. This was followed with a nice take on crowd favorite “Join Together” that had Daltrey leading the audience in a singalong. And the singalong continued with “You Better You Bet,” which had the band firing on all cylinders and the crowd singing along at the top of their voices.
The part of the show that followed seemed designed to provide Daltrey with a break from lead-vocal duties. First, Townshend sang the lead vocal on a really wonderful performance of “I’m One” while playing acoustic guitar. At one point, Townshend joked of the song being his “Bruce Springsteen moment” and proceeded to sing a bit of the vocal in Springsteen style as the Jersey crowd roared “Brrruuuce!” Then, Daltrey, before leaving the stage briefly, introduced the instrumental “The Rock” by telling the crowd about the great instrumentals that Townshend had written. Townshend joked that he was going to put on his “maestro’s jacket” to lead the band and proceeded to put on a white jacket before picking up his Stratocaster to begin the performance of “The Rock.” They delivered a rip-roaring performance of the song that was backed by film shown on the large screen of news events that had happened over the five decades of the band’s history.
Daltrey returned to the stage to lead the stellar take on “Love, Reign O’er Me.” It began with an extended piano intro by keyboardist John Corey, who threw in some Chopin before the rest of the band kicked in. It was one of Daltrey’s feature moments of the concert. He did a blues growl near the end, harkening back to the John Lee Hooker covers that the band did in their early days.
Townshend took over lead-vocal duties on “Eminence Front,” a song that has turned up in several TV commercials in recent years. The performance of the song was raw and bluesy, and quite aggressive. Daltrey played a Telecaster during its performance.
In recent years, the section of The Who’s performances that features songs from their 1969 “rock opera” Tommy has become a big highlight of the shows. The section from Tommy that was performed at the Newark show was no exception. It sounded raw and loud, like it did when the band first performed it live in 1969. “Amazing Journey” featured Starkey’s spectacular drumming. The performance of the instrumental “Sparks” reminded me of a much-younger Townshend as the guitarist struck a power chord and then stood in a full-on Birdman pose with his arms extended as feedback from the chord blasted from the speakers. The crowd loved the short and sharp take on “Pinball Wizard,” as they cheered and sang along throughout. The Who capped the Tommy section with an absolutely scintillating performance of “See Me, Feel Me” that featured Townshend windmilling like crazy toward the end, and, standing in front of Starkey’s kit, facing the drummer and egging him on to push the song to further heights. It was jaw dropping.
The Who closed out the show with two classics from their 1971 Who’s Next album. A terrific “Baba O’Riley” had the crowd singing along with a full-throated roar, particularly at the “teenage wasteland” bit. It received a massive cheer at the end. This was followed by the traditional set closer, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which was extended at the end and highlighted by Starkey’s incredible drumming.
There was no encore. After two hours of one Who classic after another, the crowd didn’t seem to mind. Daltrey and Townshend spoke to the crowd following the performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and introduced the band members. In addition to Daltrey, Townshend, and Starkey, the band is comprised of Townshend’s younger brother, Simon Townshend, on guitar and backing vocals, bassist Pino Palladino, and keyboardists John Corey, Loren Gold, and Frank Simes. (Simes also serves as the musical director.)
It almost beggars belief that Daltrey is 72 and Townshend is 70. The performances that both men gave at the Newark show seemed like they were from musicians half their ages. While fans understand that all bands must retire from the road at some point, this last major tour by The Who provides many reasons why they should continue. In any event, they are ending their touring career on a very high note. If you have the opportunity to see any of the remaining dates on their tour, definitely do so. The Who still pack quite a wallop in concert.
The Who’s North American tour runs through May 29th and concludes with a show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Full dates of the North American tour can be found at http://thewho.com/tour/. They will be playing several dates in Europe following the conclusion of the North American tour. As one of the headline acts at England’s Isle of Wight Festival, they will top the bill on Saturday, June 11th. In addition, they are headlining the Mad Cool Festival in Madrid, Spain on Thursday, June 16th as well as the Azkena Rock Festival in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain on Saturday, June 18th.
The Who’s set list in Newark was as follows:
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See For Miles
The Real Me
Pictures Of Lily
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O’er Me
See Me, Feel Me
Won’t Get Fooled Again