Monday, December 3, 2012

you can't beat it

Pete Townshend last night. Photo by Karen Kraft
Before last night, I had not only never seen the Who live, but had never seen any member of the Who in any configuration. It turns out that somehow the Who had never played here in Nashville before last night, which partially explains why I haven't seen them during the 24 years that I've lived in Music City.

Roger Daltrey played the Ryman a few years ago. During the bit of onstage banter and baiting between Daltrey and Pete Townshend that followed the Quadrophenia portion of the evening's entertainment, Daltrey referenced that show as the best of his career. Pete tartly replied that it couldn't have been that great "because I fucking wasn't there!"

Both of those gentlemen were very much in the hizzouse that is the cavernous, clangorous Bridgestone Arena last night, and they did their legacy proud. They served up their ambitious 1973 double-LP Quadrophenia in its entirety, followed it with The Only Five Who Songs You Hear on the Radio These Days, and then it concluded with the group's sole survivors, Pete and Roger, alone onstage for a little-known acoustic number.

For me, the drawing card besides getting to see the Who at all was that they were playing all of my favorite album. While I'm very sympathetic to the argument that the group's best period was their 1966-67 The Who Sell Out / A Quick One pinnacle of Who poppiness, for me, their crowning achievement was Quadrophenia. This concept album tried to combine the story of Mods vs. Rockers in the mid-'60s England of the group members' adolescence with a powerful subcurrent about Pete Townshend's own misgivings about his group's rise from the same mean streets as main character Jimmy (in "The Punk and the Godfather," the group even blows off Jimmy when he tries to greet them at the stage door!). And there's stuff about mortality and the ocean and drowning, because it's Pete Townshend, and that's just what he does, dammit.

Despite there being a Quadrophenia movie and the album selling millions of copies in its day, it still seems overshadowed in memory and music criticism by the group's previous "rock opera," 1969's Tommy. To me, this is unfortunate because Quadrophenia is by far the superior record. I'm not much of one for concept albums (except for the Coolies' Doug, a brilliant parody of concept albums), but part of why I love Quadrophenia is that you can easily throw out the oft-inchoate storyline and Townshend's clumsy attempts to make Jimmy's split-personality "four faces" correspond with each of the Who's members, and what you're left with is a bunch of articulate, self-aware, brilliantly performed tunes. Tommy, on the other hand, features lackluster studio performances and chains many of its songs into the Procrustean bed of its wobbly concept, and I can never quite fathom why so many people love it so much.

Thanks to Roger Daltrey's initiative, on Sunday night at the Arena, we got Quadrophenia. All of it. Every song, in order, and, surprisingly to me (I remained completely spoiler-free for the show), with no breaks, pauses, chatting up of the audience, etc. There wasn't even a small tick of time between the sides of the original double LP - it flowed just like you'd put on the CD and let the whole thing play out just as the group intended.

For me, this was a huge treat - no hoping against hope that they'd play more than a couple of songs from Quadrophenia, but a guarantee that every single song would get played! Not just "5:15" and "Love, Reign O'er Me" (as much as I love both), but "Drowned," "Cut Your Hair," "Helpless Dancer," "I've Had Enough," the instrumental portions, every song, every measure, every note. If it had horns, horns were on it. If it had synth and piano and horns, they were all present. Even Entwistle and Moon participated from beyond the grave via non-creepy uses of modern technology (the band played live behind the Ox's "5:15" bass solo and used Moonie's original vocals for "Bell Boy"). The steady stream of video montages on the multiple screens actually added dimension and impact to the Quadrophenia material, drawing equally from footage of the post-WWII U.K. and the group's history. Even the visual foray into post-'70s world events that played behind "The Rock" had real impact rather than settling for being a ham-fisted "message.". I paid rapt attention throughout the set, and loved that Roger and Pete had committed to bringing their album to vivid life in a live setting.

Unfortunately for a large segment of the audience, Quadrophenia seemed to be a drag, and they sat, unmoved, not singing along, waiting for The Only Five Who Songs You Hear on the Radio These Days. They all kind of knew the album's climactic track, "Love Reign O'er Me," and got inappropriately excited whenever its melody popped up elsewhere in Quadrophenia's score, because they thought the band was about to launch into the song itself - yet more evidence that the audience didn't know the damn album. Even when the band was smashing through uptempo material like "The Punk and the Godfather" with swagger and verve, the audience still sat. The tour is thoroughly advertised as "Quadrophenia and More," and it's hardly a state secret that they're going to play the whole album, but apparently this message didn't get through to the people who ponied up considerable sums to see the band play this music that they didn't know.

And what music it was! Roger stood stage center and delivered the album's boatload of lyrics, in very good voice, with all the mic twirls and the progressively-more-unbuttoned-shirt progression that you'd expect. He obviously has some back and leg troubles that don't allow him the flexibility of his youth, but he got as close to a split as his body would allow, and he more than made up for any infirmity with a real commitment to quality belting.

And seeing Pete Townshend... to me, Pete was even more of a star, singing with a rawness I don't often associate with him, and oh my, when he was on the electric guitar... just magic. For the early part of the Quadrophenia set, Pete often played acoustic and/or rhythm, ceding lead duties and even one lead vocal to brother Simon Townshend. But mirroring the album's steady gain of momentum as it hits Sides 3 and 4, Pete retook lead guitar duties, and the intensity ratcheted up proportionally. His playing in these songs was the perfect balance of keeping to his assigned role in his own intricate compositions. yet slashing through every other instrument onstage with his razor-sharp fills and raw snarling leads. As I watched Townshend, I couldn't help but think that what he is about onstage, in that instant, isn't money (which he probably doesn't need) or adulation, but that these sounds, these feelings are in him, and they've got to get out. And seeing him brave his harrowing tinnitus to let them out was downright inspiring.

In the wake of "Love, Reign O'er Me," the audience, energized by kind of knowing a song at long last, came back to life. After Pete and Roger introduced the band and traded several barbs that felt a little too real, they proceeded to play The Only Five Who Songs You Hear on the Radio These Days, and the only suspense was what order they'd be in rather than what five songs they'd be. And one after another, they came and went: "Who Are You," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Pinball Wizard," "Baba O'Riley," and "Won't Get Fooled Again."  And of course the crowd finally went nuts.

Despite my not-so-veiled complaint about the utter predictability of this portion of the setlist, I offer it with the caveats that 1) the Who may be contractually obligated to play some or all of these songs (this is a much more common medium-venue-and-up requirement than haughty music cognoscenti seem to grok when they complain about the Big Popular Songs being played at every single gig), 2) if Pete and Roger are tired of playing these (in Daltrey's words) "old ones... but good ones," they sure didn't show it, and 3) hey, I got every little bit of my favorite Who album, one that was probably something of a difficult sell to U.S. promoters (and may well have required them playing these five warhorses as a concession), so I should probably just stop bitching.

At the end, the rest of the band walked off, leaving Daltrey and Townshend alone onstage, thanking the audience enthusiastically, but also clearly not quite ready to end the show. A roadie handed Pete an acoustic guitar, and he started playing a wistful tune I didn't recognize. As Roger and Pete vied to introduce the song and occasionally locked eyes during it, even from my vantage point in Section 118, Row K, Seat 3, I could feel the cavalcade of emotion between these two legends standing before me - the fellowship, the rage, the love, the jealousy all happening at once.

Forty-eight years together, and Roger and Pete still can't decide whether to kiss each other or stab each other. This is why it works, and why it was worth every penny it took for me to get to watch them last night. And why I cried big real tears when Roger sang these words.

All of us sad
Lean on my shoulder now
The story is done
It's getting colder now
A thousand songs
Still smoulder now
We played them as one
We're older now

All of us sad
All of us free
Before we walk from the stage
Two of us
Will you have some tea?
Will you have some tea
At the theatre with me?

1 comment:

2fs said...

Also (re The 5 Songs): (4) They're all awesome songs no matter how many times you've heard them.

Good to hear Daltrey (and Townshend) is in good voice...I'd heard a few excerpts from their last studio venture, and it did not sound good.