Saturday, March 12, 2016

Under the Big Top # 11: “A Who Concert Review: The Last Who-rah”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Join Together”
Album: Non-album single
Release Date: June, 1972

It was about two years ago now when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey sat with a reporter and talked about their pending 2015 “The Who hits 50” Anniversary Tour (which Townshend amended, pointing out a dormancy period in the 80s and 90s by stating “for 13 years the Who didn’t really exist, so we are really only 37”).  In the interview, Daltrey referred to the tour as the beginning of a long goodbye, insisting that this was it for world tours by emphasizing the physical toll it takes to do them.  I took this statement to heart.  And so when tickets went on sale and Mac snatched up six for a core group of us, I began to gear up for my final Who show, which was supposed to have happened last October at the Boston Garden (I remain in corporate-extension-name denial, so that’s what I still call the place).  It did not: A Roger Daltrey bout with Viral Meningitis being the culprit which, due to its severity, nearly turned my upcoming ‘Last Who-Rah’ experience into a chimera. 

In the end, it simply delayed what I now believe was the inevitable, which worked out nicely with this Big Top series as I was not quite ready to roll it out until this past January, several months after the original scheduled Boston event.  I say ‘worked out nicely’, because these past 10 weeks have been all I would have hoped for in regards to re-stirring those Who juices in my soul.  My thinking with all these blog series is that there are no guarantees that I will recapture my youthful fascination for any of the music I re-immerse myself into; at least to the degree that I can passionately write about it all, which to date includes year-long weekly-entry series on the Rolling Stones (2012), Neil Young (2014), and now the Who (not to mention the original 100-entry “Gem Video” series in 2007-08, which covered the gambit in terms of musicians).  Thankfully it all continues to click, making for ideal preparation for that Who show this past Monday evening.

Before I get into the actual concert review, I have to back up a tad to the beginning of my self-proclaimed ‘Last Who-Rah’ weekend.  I was getting ready to settle in for my typical Friday flexi-place work day at home when a monkey wrench was tossed into that plan.  A pickup truck careened off the road in front of the neighbor’s yard, took out the telephone poll (knocking out power in the neighborhood for the day), weaved across their yard and then ours, and finally crashed into a 25 foot blue spruce tree which Nancy and I had decorated all these years with Christmas lights.

The driver, whose truck was totaled, ended up without a scratch (thank goodness).  The spruce tree; well that was another matter.  At first it looked like the leaning Tower of Pisa (as the week progressed we got to see what will eventually happen to that Italian campanile, as the tree inched ever closer to the ground and now just about rests there).  When I arrived at the scene from a quick errand a few minutes after the accident (if it was a bit earlier, I would have seen it all play out before my eyes), I could not figure for the life of me how the pickup truck ended up where it did.  There were other trees between the spruce tree and the road that should have acted as a buffer, and the lilac bush directly behind it was unscathed too.  One of the emergency respondents later showed me what happened:  That amazing trail down deeper into our yard and then up again into the tree. 

We had decorated that blue spruce for 12 years.  After the first year I gave up taking down the upper lights and just left them there.  Every year we would add the lower lights and then I would close my eyes, plug in, and raise my head skyward.  Opening my eyes would unfailingly lead to the exclamation: “A Christmas Miracle!”  The upper lights remained working year after year. 

The tree was on its way out though.  The lower branches were dying annually by the bundle.  I tried to reassure the poor lady who hit it that this was meant to be; she had plenty of other things to worry about and I did not want to heap on that pile.

The most fascinating part of the event though was when I glanced up the yard after talking with the driver I saw what looked like a miniature spruce tree sticking out of the front lawn.  I put two-two together, and after glancing up at the top of the leaning Tower of Tree-sa, confirmed that it was the crown itself, which got lopped off the tree upon impact!  This was too much to ignore.  There was symbolism here.  I picked up the crown and brought it into our home, where we decorated it with Christmas lights for one last time.  Then I began to contemplate.

As the buildup to the ‘Last Who-Rah’ intensified thru Saturday and into Sunday, I could not shake the thought: Was all of this in any way symbolic of the pending show?  Well, I think so.  First off, like the Who concert I was about to see, this majestic tree went out with a bang after a longer-than-expected run.  During that run it glowed bright.  And, despite that bang of an ending, it landed on its feet.

The Who have always landed on their feet; the Pete Townshend leaps regularly ending upright; the Roger Daltrey microphone spins and Keith Moon drum-stick tosses routinely finding their way back into their deliverer’s hands.  But all great things must come to an end.  I mean, how long could I expect this to last anyway?  These shows are high octane and the remaining founding-members of the Who are now in their 70s.  Many of their fans, like myself, are in our 50s or older.  Forty years ago we would have all found this 50-year celebration a bit ludicrous, in similar fashion to what Mick Jagger was thinking in 1975 when he stated “I’d rather be dead than sing Satisfaction when I’m 45”.  45?  How about 72!

And yet, as with so many great Who-related shows I have attended over the years, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert I witnessed earlier this week, which reinvigorated me to continue to immerse myself into Who music for the remainder of 2016 with the intent of encapsulating the effect it has.  Still, as was the case when I first took in that fatally-struck spruce tree in my front yard last weekend, I’m ready for the end game.  Monday nite made this all plainly evident to me.

Ok, so the night itself.  It started at The Fours sports bar (upstairs), same locale where my bachelor party launched 25 years ago.  A great aspect of Who shows, as is the case with most any concert, is being surrounded by like-minded fans; a chance to get pumped up.  Occasionally there’s a surprise in the mix; an opportunity to talk to an enlightened stranger about his/her take on a given song or album, consequently expanding my Who horizons.  This was not to be this time around as there was simply too much of a need on my part to catch up with old friends who I have ventured to these concerts with on a regular basis. That personal ‘Who Crew’ on Monday evening, as with most Who shows, included cousin Becca, along with great friends Dave, Mac, and Kurt.  For this show we also had in our circle newcomer Mike Carney, a fellow Pepperellian whom I jam with in a “band” on occasion (“hackers” may be a more apt description, but hey, I speak for myself).  Mike fit right in as our group talked about all things Who, including past memories of shows.

When we got to our seats, I spotted a ~ 10-year old boy sitting with his Dad.  I leaned in and said “in twenty years you are going to look back and say to yourself ‘I got to see the Who!’ “.  His Dad smiled and enthusiastically shook my hand as the boy looked at me in awe.  I think I got him.  During the show I would occasionally glance over to see how he was enjoying the spectacle.  Based on those observations, I have no doubt he was.

Right off, there was definitely a warm-embrace feel from the men on the stage.  Boston has been an automatic destination for the Who over their many years of touring (including the old Boston Tea Party venue which they performed at in the late 60s), and as they looked out on the capacity crowd in front of them, you could just tell that this was a special city for the band.  There were a few comments made by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend along these lines, but these were not needed really.  The emotion in the arena said everything.

I knew this concert was going to cover the breadth of the Who’s catalog; not a greatest hits thing per-se, but an attempt to touch on a bit of everything.  And so the familiar tunes were rolled out before us, cascading one to another, and in turn throwing that Who corner of my brain into overdrive.  What follows is the set list, one song at a time, along with that given songs date of release (always important for this History Major), and in parenthesis a handful of thoughts that were floating through my mind as I listened:

First up “Who Are You” - 1978 (“I just wrote about this one in Big Top # 10:  There’s enough written there to reflect on for the entire show, never mind one song. The ‘ooh wa ooh wa ooh wa ooh wa’…. interlude always evokes images of surf/beach-party films of the early 60s”).  Next up “The Seeker” – 1971 (“hey, I wrote about this one too – Big Top # 1.  As brother Fred pointed out in his feedback to that entry, the 2-3 second break in the middle of the song after ‘I’m a really desperate man’ is poignant.  They nailed it.  The band brought this one back from the dead on their last few tours”).   The Kids are Alright” – 1965 (“This one reflects a 50 year celebration all on its own.  Zak Starkey sounds great, but the original extended recording is a true testament to the utter uniqueness of Keith Moon’s drumming.   Recall talking to Kurt before the show about the classic Who movie of the same name we watched together in that North Adams movie theater all those years ago, which had such an effect on me.  I've still got the poster from the broken glass case in front of the theatre").  I Can See For Miles” - 1967 (“not sure if I have ever seen this song performed live; maybe a Daltrey solo show.  Never has been one of my favorites, but hey, not bad here! Wait, I wrote about this one too – Big Top # 5.  That’s 3 of 4 so far.   Recalling Townshend saying one time that this was the best pop songs he ever wrote”). 

Next on the docket was “My Generation” – 1965. (“this song is also 50 years old.  Pete Townshend could have died on stage if he was a bit closer to Moon’s exploding drum kit on the Smothers Brothers show.  Perhaps that’s what is planned here?  Man, what a way to go…. nope, not happening.”). “The Real Me” – 1973 (“thinking of the way I let Bec and Dave know that I secured Madison Square Garden tickets to see Quadrophenia in’96 - see Big Top # 9.  Nice Brighton England imagery on the big screen. The Who sound great”). “Pictures of Lily” - 1967 (“more great imagery on the big screen.  This song needs John Entwistle’s French horn for the ‘climax’ moment.  It’s too much of a key to leave it out.  Oh well.  Still, it’s a very nice chestnut to pull out of the war chest”).  Behind Blue Eyes” - 1971 (“the crowd can never resist singing the refrain.  Neither can I.  I wonder how many of them know it’s an appeal to God?  I wonder how many of them know a lot of Townshend's songs are about faith and God?”).  Bargain” - 1971 (“nice intro by Pete Townshend, stating this is one of his all-time favorites.  I am not surprised, though the Who don’t play it live as frequently as some of their more familiar hits.  The entire song is an open appeal to God. It sounds magnificent”).

Next up, “Join Together” - 1972 (“ok, I think I’m going to use this one for this week’s Big Top selection.  Yes, we are joining together with this band for one last time here. The Who are primarily known for their album oriented music, but their discography is flush with a multitude of singles that never made it onto original studio albums.  This is one of many.  Hmmm, I will have to roll out the excellent video that came out with the song for the blog - -   which showcases that the band members were multi-instrumental, much like The Band.  I’ll also have to point out that I love in the video how Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle all roam out into the crowd near the end of the song.  Wonder if they will do it here <nope>”).

The Who then launched into “You Better You Bet” – 1981 (“I also covered this one – Big Top # 8; which in part recalls a cathartic moment at a Great Woods show years ago.  This song is one of many examples of how diverse the Who’s sound could be”). “I’m One” – 1973 (“a highlight of the evening’s festivities, despite the fact that it was a stripped down acoustic number sung by Townshend, who is carrying the show tonight.  He sounds better than he did 20 years ago”).  The Rock” – 1973 (“wow, back to back highlights.  The most professional of musicians know how to build up a show.  Three keyboard players are paying off here.  I don’t want this song to end, but then again, I have to hit the head. In fact, I’ve had to hit the head for a while now. I’ll go right when the last chord it struck”).  Love Reign O’er Me” – 1973 (“shoot, I should have known this song would follow on the heels of ‘The Rock’.  Gonna have to make this quick: Too many wonderful memories of this song to be staring at a urinal.  Glad to catch half the song in this runway.”).  Eminence Front” – 1982 (“Yet another Big Top entry - # 3.  Pete is back singing lead and sounding great.  In fact, the whole band sounds great.  I forgot how well Simon Townshend – Pete’s biological brother, 15 years his younger – fits in.  Also, always have respected how bass man Pino Palladino, does not try to emulate The Ox’s sound.  Pino’s style works very well here.  Zak Starkey, as always, sounds sweet”). 

The Who wound down with a Tommy medley, including “Amazing Journey”, “Sparks”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “See Me, Feel Me” – 1969 (“I wonder if the Bird Man will come out ** back when the Who performed Tommy in 1969, Townshend would stick his arms out like a bird and hover over his reverb.  He stopped doing this for quite some time until more recently**.  Wait; there’s Bird Man!  Some of my favorite Entwistle backing vocals ever are on the live Woodstock version of “See Me, Feel Me”.  That’s not happening here.  I’ll have to try and cover it myself”).  The Who closed with two classics off of Who’s Next: “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – 1971 (“Strobe lights in full bloom to great effect.  Still amazed at how the Who morphed into their super-band form in 1971.  It must have been from all that touring of Tommy – which works as a nice little insight here, having just heard that Tommy mini set”).

The band thanked the crowd and Roger Daltrey closed it all off with the declaration “Be Lucky!”  And then off they were, and off we were.  As was the case with the Rolling Stones two years ago (which was my 2nd favorite Stones show of at least 8), I was both floored and inspired by what men can achieve in their 70s (which goes without saying for my Dad as well). 

A thank you to the Who, as well as my fellow Who fans and friends for a very memorable evening.

 - Pete

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