The Who are honored, not finished
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
With the Who, it’s always been about power.
Power in volume. Power in lyrics. Powerful albums serving as powerful statements. Very rarely have the Who ever gone into a project halfway, unsure of their footing or exactly what they want to say. In their heyday, they were the loudest band in the world, certified.
They’re not the same band as then. Keith Moon overdosed in 1978. John Entwistle partied a bit too hard in 2002. Roger Daltrey, 64, and Pete Townshend, 63, are left to carry on the torch of the Who. But, funny enough, the spirit of the band hasn’t changed much. And as VH1 prepared to honor the band at UCLA’s Pauley Pavillion, there was more than enough evidence to show that the Who, present day, are more than just a museum piece.
The scene outside Pauley Pavillion was interesting enough. After passing through metal detectors, the collection of rock fans young and old, including L.A. women dressed to the nines and 15-year-olds in jeans and t-shirts, was a better-than-average source for people watching. Expensive drinks were available outside, reheated frozen pizza inside. Whatever. None of it seemed to matter much. When David Duchovny came out to begin the proceedings, the crowd was uniformly tuned in and ready.
Just the idea of this evening, with Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and the Flaming Lips paying tribute to the Who, is enough to send any avid rock fan reeling. Having these bands collected on any one night is something only Lollapalooza or Reading could dream of. And having them here soley to show their respects to the Who was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The screen lifted around the target-shaped stage to reveal the Foo Fighters slamming into the opening chords of “Young Man Blues” like, well, angry young men. It was at that moment that the sheer joy of the evening was made apparent. These guys were just plain into it, and the crowd was right there with them. And, it didn’t hurt that they were nailing the tune, in spirit and in practice. By the time Gaz Coombes (of Supergrass fame) came out to sing with the band on “Bargain,” my head was spinning. I couldn’t get over how perfect it all seemed.
And all the while, we could see Wayne Coyne waiting in his bubble.
The stage rotated clockwise, and there emerged the Flaming Lips, already playing the coda to Tommy’s “Sparks,” with Lips leader Coyne in his giant bubble navigating his way above the crowd. Who tribute or not, what made this evening great was that the bands were allowed to be themselves. Sure enough, the Flaming Lips couldn’t help but be the Flaming Lips. Streamers, lights, a gong, smoke machines — the Lips were completely in their element and perfectly in sync with Tommy itself, an over-the-top masterpiece if their ever was one. With Coyne belting out the final “Listening to You” as the band pounded away behind, all that was left was to trash the stage. They did that admirably, too.
Incubus, surprisingly enough, weren’t completely offensive. Added later than the rest of the bill, their presence in the show smelled of VH1 trying to keep their foot in mainstream rock’s door. But I wasn’t even aware that Incubus had the pull of, say, Nickleback anymore. Either way, they worked through versions of “I Can See for Miles” and “I Can’t Explain” that were completely pedestrian. They did nothing to repulse or stand out.
Pearl Jam topped the tribute band bill, and delivered with their take on Quadrophenia, complete with the strings and horns to bring the album's huge sound to life. Vedder’s voice did the rest of the work, though, on their heart-stopping rendition of “Love, Reign O’er Me.” The sheer aggression and anguish present in the chorus were enough to crumble the stage. Add in a rousing take of “The Real Me,” and the bands had done more than their share to make this a special night.
Pearl Jam, the Flaming Lips and the Foo Fighters played like bands who felt they owed the world to the Who. The Who were happy to show their appreciation.
To understand the level the Who has reached at this point in their careers is to appreciate everything they’ve gone through since Keith Moon’s death in 1978. Drafting former Face Kenney Jones behind the kit, the band soldiered on through 1982, playing for huge crowds with a professional, if not always heartfelt, touch night after night. By the time of the last tour, they were playing stadiums as a tight touring unit with all the passion of a carburetor. The last two albums, It’s Hard and Face Dances, had been fine in places, lackluster in others, and Townshend was tired of pounding stages like a clown. Just take a listen to the live Who’s Last sometime. It was time to end.
The first reunion took place seven years later, on a tour Townshend now refers to as “The Who on Ice,” and it was as bad as it sounds. Big bands, backing vocalists, Townshend on an acoustic, it was polished and lifeless, much more a revue of the Who’s career than the band themselves. The ’89 tour probably did more to sully their reputation than anything, and nearly 20 years later, they’ve finally moved past it.
They’ve done that by reinventing themselves as a stripped-down, hard-charging unit since 1999. The original trio, joined by Zak Starkey on drums and John “Rabbit” Bundrick on the keys, in tow with the band since ’79, started to put those awful memories to rest. This band played a blistering tour in 2000 and blew the rest of the bill off the stage at Paul McCartney’s “Concert for New York City” in October of 2001. It was almost embarrassing. Daltrey’s voice was in rare form. Townshend was hopping, pounding his guitar and windmilling like a 25-year-old. Entwistle’s bass rattled and thundered. After hours of tearjerking performances and testimonials, they blew the roof off of Madison Square Garden simply by refusing to be anyone but themselves. On that night, the Who had no equal. They were the mightiest band on Earth.
And then, they lost Entwistle.
Just before the start to their 2002 tour, Entwistle let his vices get the best of him in Las Vegas, and the band were left scrambling. Just a few days later, though, they were on stage at the Hollywood Bowl with Pino Palladino doing his best to fill Entwistle’s shoes. He’s been standing in his place ever since, and the Who have continued to move, in memory of the band’s fallen members and in order to carry on the legacy of the band, from “My Generation” through their most recent album, Endless Wire.
After a 20-minute break, the audience immediately sprang to their feet to the opening synth of “Baba O’Riley.” With the trio of Baba, “The Seeker” and “Who Are You” to open, the band announced their presence with authority and made a statement that, while honored to be honored, they were not about to roll over and die now that their special was being taped. Townshend playing with the fury and anger that has propelled him for more than 40 years, while Daltrey continued to defy age in voice and appearance. Listening to him belt out “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” leaves more proof that Daltrey is without peer at this point. None of his contemporaries can sing the way he can now.
The movement of “My Generation” into “Won’t Get Fooled Again” had the band at their best. They were alive with passion, still as frantic as ever, and still adventurous enough to work in a jam between the two that saw Townshend reveling in the interplay with Starkey, who has done more than his share to keep this band rolling and relevant.
After a moment to say thanks to the opening bands (where Townshend curiously forgot to mention Incubus), just Townshend and Daltrey were left on stage to perform “Tea and Theatre,” the last track on their last album, in what has become a nightly tradition. With Townshend on the acoustic, Daltrey takes full control, singing with such force and authority as to cause shock.
And again, it comes down to power. The power that these two men, alone save for an acoustic guitar and a mug of tea, are able to exude on stage cannot be matched. They’ve survived the years of infighting, abuse and excess, and have grown stronger for it.
On this night, they were once again the mightiest band on Earth. The Who still have no equal.
The VH1 Rock Honors celebrating the Who will air on Thursday, July 17.