The Who breathes fire on stage in Boston
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
The stigma around "old" bands touring is an appropriate one. Many of the bands on the nostalgia circuits really don't have any passion for what they do anymore, never mind the right to still be on a stage pretending they're 25 years old. Night after night, bands run through sets with greatest hits, talk about the good ole' days, and pat themselves on the back for doing such a good job back in 1975.
Look no further than the opening act, the Pretenders. Yes, they still sound very good. Chrissie Hynde and the boys are still in great shape and can put on a great set. But that set hasn't changed much since 1989, and the constant referencing to glories of the past wore very thin very quickly. It became something of a sad sight; sure, they've made a good living and are likely still enjoying themselves, but what's left to keep them going at this point?
The Who have been accused of the same thing by some. But, from the first notes of "I Can't Explain" through "The Seeker" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," the difference is obvious. Forget for a moment that the histories of the two bands are totally different; the energy, determination and ferocity of the music carries the band through their music. The Who did the oldies act bit once — on an ill-fated 1989 tour — but every tour since then has been markedly better, the band having learned from their sins. The band that took the stage on this night in Boston was not interested in being simply a juke box for fans of old; this band was on stage to prove something.
The Who, now composed of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend along with bassist Pino Palladino, guitarist Simon Townshend and drummer extraordinaire Zak Starkey, are a tight, fire-breathing unit that has the ability to revamp the old tunes with vigor while pumping out new music. The old songs have new life forced into them. For instance, "Who Are You" sounds noticeably different onstage than it did when the Who first toured it in 1979, while "Eminence Front" has a new, dangerous edge that was totally absent from their "farewell" tour in 1982.
And, of course, the Who also have a new album in Endless Wire that they obviously believe in. No less than 11 of the 19 tracks were played on this night in Boston, and they were not only given passionate, inspired readings, the crowd responded to them as ferociously as many of the old numbers.
Townshend, still the leader and emotional center of the Who, is dynamite as a 61-year-old kid. Still leaping, still shouting, and still singing and playing with passion, his energy feeds into the crowd, and vice versa. There's an emotional attachment to each lyric and each solo, with every note pounded and wind-milled out of his Stratocaster with a stinging bite. And in all honesty, Daltrey has no business sounding this good at age 62. But then again, a lot of folks involved with the Who probably thought he had no business abstaining from cigarettes and alcohol in the 70s, never mind going to bed at a reasonable hour for all those years. As a result, the sheer power of his voice, from the climatic scream of "Won't Get Fooled Again" or the catharsis of "Tea & Theatre," has the ability to physically move the room.
The combination of these two and their shared enthusiasm keeps songs like "My Generation" and "Baba O'Riley" from sounding silly. The youthful energy is there, though tempered with the wisdom of age. But the stage presence and showmanship can't be argued — they're incredible live performers.
After the controlled chaos of "Sparks" and the emotional crunch of "See Me, Feel Me," Palladino, Starkey and Simon Townshend quietly exited the stage, Pete Townshend picked up his acoustic guitar, and Daltrey stood with a mug of tea at the mic stand. Through the haunting finale, the conclusion of Townshend's "Wire & Glass" eerily mirrored the current stage of the Who. All that was left, after years of smashed guitars, destroyed hotel rooms, the Hall of Fame, gold records, new cars, drugs, booze, marriages and divorces were two friends, playing on stage in memory of their fallen brothers. It was powerful, to be certain. Having the guts to close with a new song — could you imagine the Stones trying that without falling on their faces? — proves the band's new material really is up to the snuff of their best work.
It's that belief and will to pave new grounds while paying respect to the past that makes this version of the Who work. It's not the same band that rocked Charlton in 1974, but they don't pretend it is. This is a band that puts on an incredible show in 2006, night in and night out. This is a band who believes in their music, new and old, and this is a band who should tour as long as they feel up to it. Because there's no way, after watching them in action, that they would ever allow themselves to give less than 100 percent on stage.
That wouldn't be respectful to the fans, to John Entwistle and Keith Moon, and to the music they've been making for more than 40 years. And the music is what keeps the Who alive.