In taking in the Who and its 2013 take on “Quadrophenia” at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday evening, the mind couldn’t help but wander. The band is hardly operating at full strength these days – because of loss, age, physical erosion. But they remain one of the most important groups in rock history.
Some feelings that surfaced immediately after spending two hours with the gang:
1. How poignant, watching Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and the band play this rock opera about disenfranchised youth amid war – a war that was shown on screens behind the band as they made their way through the double-LP from front to back. As those post-war images dominated the screens inside the Pepsi Center, U.S. President Barack Obama dominated many more screens throughout the world via his State of the Union address, outlining plans to bring home 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the next year.
2. Also, the Who has moved forward in the absence of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, who passed in 1978 and 2002 respectively. But seeing the band is a powerful reminder of the way we recognize loss in popular music. The hip-hop guys, they have it all wrong. If you’ve been to a hip-hop show in the last decade, you’ll see images (or holograms) of the fallen stars we’ve lost – Tupac, Biggie, ODB – projected on stages and screens. It’s respect, sure, but in most cases, the artists showing props had little to do with the fallen soldiers they’re shouting out to. In the situation of the Who highlighting Moon and Entwistle via video clips – giving them the occasional posthumous solo, even – it’s a sincere tribute. And it provokes something powerful on the inside.
3. “Quadrophenia” isn’t the Who’s best record. It’s one of the most powerful concept records ever attempted, but it’s not the most listenable or memorable Who effort. The guys get this. That’s why they hang around after the final reverb of “Love, Reign O’er Me” for an all-hits assault focusing on other records.
And so Tuesday was a night of mixed emotions. Townshend is a monster, still. He’s cool and collected, and he never overdoes it – he never reaches beyond his own capacity. Daltrey is no longer cool, and he often stretches his own vigor. But with the help of eight bandmates, they put together a potent evening of music.
Of the “Quadrophenia” goods, a couple tracks stood out in the modern arena. “5:15” slayed the audience with its quiet-loud-quiet dynamics – and a subtle intro/outro courtesy of Townshend. “Bell Boy” was an emotional jog, as a video of Moon handled many of the vocals. His unbridled enthusiasm remains intoxicating, all these years later. And it was the loudest the crowd got all night.
The encore had the group indulging in the crowd-pleasers: “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Whatever passion “Who Are You” lacked was made up by a devoted-to-the-original “Behind Blue Eyes,” which is still a tremendous rock ballad. “Pinball Wizard” had the guys feeling the altitude – and the years – and both “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” suffered from Daltrey’s inconsistent voice.
While some vocalists from the ’60s still retain the clarity in their vocals that made them legends so many decades ago, Daltrey struggles through much of the band’s material. He manages, most notably at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” when he lets out that possessed screech. (He nailed that, and it was thrilling – and terrifying.) But sometimes his vocals missed their mark.
At the end of the night, after the hit-filled encore, it was only Daltrey and Townshend on the stage – admiring the packed arena. As Mardi Gras beads were flung to their feet – it was Fat Tuesday – they took on “Tea & Theatre” as a duo, bidding the crowd good night and farewell. It was a classy close to an eventful night, but like much of the show, it didn’t really leave us wanting more.