It's difficult to overstate the impact The Who has made on my life. It's no hyperbole to say that 'I would not be a musician today were it not for The Who'. Pete Townshend has repeatedly told the story of the Mods who came backstage after a gig - raving about I Can't Explain. These teenagers became his artistic patrons and he would continue to write from their point of view and express what they could not.
I was introduced to their music around the time of my 16th birthday. I was in a sort of a musical limbo at the time. I wasn't taking guitar lessons anymore, but i still liked to play a bit. Looking back I'd say there was a danger that I could've become one of the many who took lessons for a couple of years and then dropped it. I wanted to be a pilot, but I also daydreamed of being a stand up comedian as well as a rockstar.
A guy named Mike Heitner had been transferred to my school towards the end of the year. We met one day in the music room at lunch. I'd gone downstairs to play around on the school's guitar and amp and was shocked to see somebody was already there. There was another guy there who'd brought his own guitar - who was clearly in over his head and who very quickly offered his guitar to me. We jammed a little bit and after that, brought our guitars to school everyday and played out on the grass at lunchtimes where the cool kids smoked. I didn't know a lot of the songs he knew, but I was a quick learner. After a couple of weeks of jamming around together, he'd invited me to join his band. I'd never been in a band before outside of any school-organized activity. I'm not even sure it had occurred to me that being in a band was even a possibility. I didn't even have any equipment!
On the last day of school, I managed to sign out the school's electric guitar and amplifier for the summer. That night I met the other guys in the band and we played songs by The Beatles, The Clash, The Police and others - but most importantly: The Who! This was all basically new music to me (although I'd already been well acquainted with the Beatles), but The Who had something special to it!
After a couple of hours of playing we took a break and started talking about the usual 16 year old stuff. Eventually the conversation came around to The Who. Mike said that he'd stayed up late a few nights earlier recording a documentary about The Who on TV. "You guys have gotta see the first 5 minutes where they smash their guitars!" This was The Kids Are Alright and the TV appearance was their legendary spot on the Smothers Brothers. It goes without saying that 5 minutes turned into the full 90 minutes. After the movie was over we ran back downstairs and played My Generation and 'smashed' our guitars at the end - gingerly hitting them into the soft cushions on the back of the couch. ...and my life had changed!
They were intelligent and funny...and good! The biggest moments for me were the live clips from the Woodstock-era. Especially Young Man Blues, Sparks and See Me Feel Me. The Who themselves look back and cringe at their Woodstock performance, but musicians give a lot of weight to the backstage experience when rating their own shows. But Pete's guitar sound was astonishing. The solo for See Me Feel Me (in particular) was the biggest sounding thing I'd EVER heard! It was loud and distorted, but wasn't harsh or tinny in any way. The repetitive chord progression was dramatic, grandiose and passionate and the Fuzz guitar solo made me feel high.
...and from that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
...but I digress.
Last Tuesday, Feb 19, The Who were at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario to perform Quadrophenia. I'd only seen them once before back in 1997 when they were also touring with Quadrophenia. John Entwistle was still alive then. I know what their live mandate is all about and I knew not to expect a Note for Note show. Most of what i like about The Who came from the energy of the 3 musicians in the band - 2 of whom are now dead. The surviving members are no longer young men with young men's voices. I can't even bring myself to watch YouTube clips of recent shows because the energy and sound I want is not there and even the melodies are rarely the way I want to hear them. Many post-CAL-show discussions over red wine or CC&Coke come around to our shows and how they fit into the musical experience. Is it even a Rock&Roll show? Back in the 70's there was an understanding that bands COULD NOT reproduce their studio recordings live, nor were they expected to. Part of the R&R experience was about spontaneity. Audiences actually went to concerts to hear the musicians play and appreciate their musicianship. The attitude was that 'you wouldn't ask a painter to paint the same picture over and over again' But after 40 years, I maintain that the 'recordings have become the songs'. Pete Townshend would probably say that CAL is not Rock&Roll, but he also said that the 'tape recorder has become the new notation'.
The show opened with the familiar ocean sounds of I Am The Sea. Images played out across three circular screens over a larger screen in the background and the four leitmotifs representing each member of the Who played out before the band launched into The Real Me....in A...a minor third down from the original key. My heart sank a bit. Was the show going to be detuned the whole time like Led Zeppelin at the O2? I realize that Roger's 68, so maybe he needs a comfortable warm-up so he doesn't blow his voice out - at this point I was a little worried.
Segue into 'Quadrophenia' (in concert pitch!) the instrumental title track which re-introduces the 4 leitmotifs. Pete's brother Simon is playing the leads in this song...and I couldn't hear it at all. His fader was way down. He was prominently displayed up on the screens, so the crew obviously knew he plays this part, but all I could hear was Pete's rhythm guitar. I couldn't even hear the drums! When the song works around to the Love Reign O'er Me theme, I couldn't hear the keyboards - just more Pete. Zak Starkey (who's looking more like Ringo as he gets older) hit the shots every 4 bars but I can't get any sense of timing - he must've been had a click or a very good monitor mix because the band were obviously together.
Next was Cut My Hair. I know Pete always plays around with the vocal melody and rhythm, so I'm ready for it. But his voice sounds terrible! Is he sick? I know his voice and I know the throaty rasp he likes to do live, but he sounded like his throat was ripped to shreds. Occasionally, he sounded alright - when he reverted back to the more familiar melody, but these moments were few and far between.
Next came The Punk Meets The Godfather. Roger steps up to the mic and Pete starts the opening riff. It's in the right key, the right rhythm, the right attitude and the right sound. Roger starts singing - and he sounds fucking great! Instant goosebumps! Things are starting to come together.
They stayed fairly true to the original (lead vocals/guitar notwithstanding) through the rest of the first half. Simon Townshend sang lead on The Dirty Jobs and supported Roger in most of the really hard passages.
5:15 had great energy and for the first time they started stretching out and really jamming. It felt pretty good too! Pete leading Zak and Pino Palladino - who I kept forgetting was there (which is considered a good thing when you're talking about a 'sub'). I started thinking abut John Entwistle and i remembered that this was the point in the show where he'd take a bass solo. And then he appeared up on the screen. The rest of the band left the stage as John played his 5:15 solo with live accompaniment from Zak Starkey. It was a nice tribute to a fallen brother and as they band rejoined at the end of his solo, the video of John nodded thank you and goodbye to the audience and slowly faded out. Very nicely done - I got a lump in my throat.
Pete's voice finally came to life when he sang Drowned. His voice sounded great even as he played around with the delivery because he (mostly) avoided his throaty style.
Keith Moon made his appearance in Bellboy as he sang his parts on the screen. The audio was taken directly from the album, but the video showed his live rendition from the Charleton show in 1974. Another nice tribute.
They kept it up for the rest of the show. A couple of the songs towards the end were transposed, but only by a semitone. I can't remember specifically - but I think Dr Jimmy and maybe another one were detuned. After the guitar solo in Love Reign O'er Me, I couldn't help but wonder how Roger was going to hit that big "LOOOOOOVE..." in the final chorus, but he sounded great! Enough to make me wonder if it wasn't pre-recorded, but it didn't seem to be.
The crowd were on their feet for the end of the album and Pete introduced the band before heading into some other Who classics to close the show.
Who Are You
Behind Blue Eyes
Won't Get Fooled Again (with another possibly questionable pre-recorded scream)
The touring band left the stage and they closed the show with the only new song of the night Tea and Theatre. It seemed appropriate to end the night with only Roger and Pete onstage. I'm familiar witht he song, but of course I'm not really a fan of the new material. But again, live music is best - I really listened to the song for the first time. Roger sang it beautifully and it was a nice way to close the night.
There was no encore.
I enjoyed the show - possibly for nostalgic reasons, but I still enjoyed myself. My expectations weren't really very high based on youtube clips, but there's something to be said about watching youtube vs. actually being there in the moment and hearing the music live. The Who as we know and love them died with Keith Moon and it really hasn't been the same since. Was it 1973? No, but I knew it wouldn't be.