The Who: Denver, Colorado, February 12, 2013
February 12, 2013
The Who Pepsi Center, Denver, CO February 12, 2013
One of the greatest moments on record from the Classic Rock era is the stunning contrast between the first two songs on the Who's Quadrophenia (MCA, 1973). The first cut, "I Am the Sea" is dominated by sea sounds with some tinkling piano and a far-away horn here and there. Roger Daltrey introduces the album's four recurring themes at various intervals. The ocean sounds create a huge awe-inspiring soundscape. It's like standing on the beach with the infinite ocean stretching out in front and the infinite sky above. Nothing but space. Then Daltrey sings, "Can you see the real me, can ya? CAN YA?"
At that precise moment, "The Real Me" kicks in, instantly moving from vast sea and sky to an intimate studio surrounded by Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Pete Townsend, each about a foot and a half away, and they are rocking! Moon unleashes the power and fury of his drumming, which basically amounts to a perpetual solo. Entwistle is all over the neck of his bass and Townsend is cranking out power chords that were simply made for air guitar. If all this was coming out of a pretty good stereo, and that stereo happened to be, you know, turned up rather loud, it was nearly overwhelming. (And still is.)
Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center, the Who performed Quadrophenia in its entirety. And in order. In the large arena, it was a challenge to recreate the 180 degree change in ambience of those first two songs as one would hear on a home stereo, but it came close. The drumming, bass playing and power chords were all there. Broadcasting a distinct bass sound throughout a hockey stadium is notoriously difficult, but fortunately, the opening of "The Real Me" sounded good on the bottom end. That was partly because the instrumentation at that point was fairly spare, so the deep notes didn't get lost in the mix.
From there, the band worked its way through the rest of the double album. On vinyl, the music runs about 80 minutes. Tuesday night's version went for 90 minutes because the band stretched out on a few tunes. One of those extended parts was during "5:15," which featured a bass solo by the departed John Entwistle. The solo was recorded in his later years (judging from the grey hair) and was displayed on the giant and crisp video displays above the band. The sound was integrated into what the band was playing live on stage. Not long after that, the late Keith Moon appeared on the video screens and sang "Bell Boy," again fully integrated into what the band was performing on stage.
Quadrophenia was a rock opera which followed up on The Who's first rock opera, 1969's Tommy, only Quadrophenia is much better. The story line is about an alienated teenager experimenting with drugs, acting tough and getting into fights, getting kicked out of his parents' house and wondering why girls don't like him. He's worried he might have four personalities, hence the name Quadrophenia. (Four-channel stereo, known as "quadraphonic" was popular at the time and may have influenced the coining of the term "Quadrophenia.") The music is, at times, majestic with its soaring synthesizers and regal horns. Many other times, it's the Who at their hard-rocking best. The four main themes (one for each personality) pop up throughout the piece and a couple "overture" type tunes are included, giving a broad sweep to the entire production. Much of the music has the simmering anger of a surly teenager and Moon's drumming drives that point home effectively, and right between the eyes. The opera concludes on a more hopeful note with "Love Reign O'er Me."
Tuesday night, the band recreated it all. The Who has been depleted by death over the years. Keith Moon left the planet in 1978 and John Entwistle checked out in 2002. For the last several years, Moon's seat has been occupied by Zak Starkey, Ringo's boy. However, for Tuesday night's show, Starkey was replaced by Scott Davis. Townsend explained during a break that Starkey was down with tendonitis. Given the requirements of recreating Moon's drumming style, that's not surprising at all.
Davis was an extremely worthy substitute, pounding the drums incessantly for the entire two hours of the show. Entwistle's replacement has been, for some years now, Pino Palledino, who recreates Entwistle's style by standing completely still on stage yet constantly throwing down intricate bass lines. This is a rhythm section that is not and never have been mere time keepers. Pounding out the beat is, of course, part of their job, but the extent of the rhythmic and melodic counterpoint is far beyond almost every other rock band.
Quadrophenia probably had only about two real hits, "5:15" and "Love Reign O'er Me." FM rock radio played a few more, like "Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim," "The Punk Meets the Godfather" and "The Real Me." Still, the bulk of the material was probably unfamiliar to much of the crowd who, unlike some of us, failed to devote a good part of their gloriously misspent youth listening to this album. This became especially apparent when "Dr. Jimmy" rolled around with little audience reaction. Some of us used this as something of a theme song at times back in the 70s. "Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim/When I'm pilled you don't notice him/He only comes out when I drink my gin." Hey it's rock 'n roll! This stuff works great for adolescent males.
To make up for the sometimes obscure material on Quadrophenia, once the band completed that album Tuesday night, they took a tour through better known territory, serving up "Who Are You?" "Behind Blue Eyes," "Pinball Wizard," "Baba O'Riley," and "Won't Get Fooled Again." At the end of that song, most of the band exited the stage, leaving only Daltrey and Townsend, who performed an acoustic duet of "Tea and Theatre" from the album The Wire (Universal, 2006.) It was a fitting closing with just the two original surviving members on stage together.
Daltrey is now 68 (69 on March 1) and Townsend is 67. Aside from the fact they spent most of the evening ironically singing about teenage alienation, they showed a fair amount of vigor, rocking hard for just over two hours. Age seems to take the biggest toll on the voice. In his prime, Daltrey was one of the best vocalists to ever take a rock anthem from a whisper to a scream. As he approaches 70, Daltrey's greatest vocal competition is his youthful self. It's hard to match up. It would have been impossible for his performance Tuesday night to match a studio recording from 40 years ago, but he came close. But not without a struggle. It was apparent that some of the high notes were a strain. The acid test, of course, was the sustained primal scream at the end of "Won't Get Fooled Again." He hit it. However, he couldn't hold it as long as he could in years past. Usually, Daltrey had just stuck to singing during the show, but he strapped on an acoustic guitar for a couple tunes and pulled out a blues harp for "Baba O'Riley."
Townsend, who performs a fair number of vocals on Quadrophenia, has also suffered some vocal degradation. Historically, his timbre has been fairly clear. Tuesday night he growled like a veteran bluesman. Of course, that's not far from what he actually is. The gravelly vocals were another contrast to the lyrics about an English teenage loner in the 1960s.
Besides the standard bass/drums/guitar/vocals, the band included Townsend's brother Simon Townsend on rhythm guitar and vocals. He even sang one of the tunes toward the beginning of Quadrophenia. On that album, Entwistle played all the horn parts (in addition to his bass). To recreate that sound in concert, the Who brought along two brass players who collectively played trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn and French horn. Three keyboard players rounded out the band for a total of 10 pieces. Quadrophenia was recorded with extensive multi-tracking and many parts of it are orchestral in scope, so a large band is required to play it live.
For new music, the opening act provided a new and retro style rolled into one. Ever wondered what it would sound like if James Brown fronted the Black Keys? Vintage Trouble, Tuesday's opening act, which played an energetic 30-minute set to warm up the crowd. This is a band to watch and they'll no doubt be back through town, hopefully to play their own gig and stretch out for a longer set.
Obviously, a concert like this is a nostalgia trip. No new musical ground was broken. The video displays throughout the evening, especially at the beginning of the show emphasized that point. Many of the images were a historical retrospective of the Who's life and times beginning with World War II England, reviewing world events over the decades, but also focusing on the Who themselves and their glory days.