Townshend brings The Who back to life with 'Quadrophenia'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Long the peak of ambition and ability, Quadrophenia has stood alone in the Who’s catalog since 1973, a daunting work that took the band, and their chosen medium, to new heights.
It also proved nearly impossible to reproduce on stage at the time, forcing Pete Townshend, the Who’s guitarist and composer, to abandon songs and simply push the rest of the thing forward himself. Live recordings from the time will show him playing furiously, trying to reproduce the thousands of sounds on his complex work through a single guitar. While fans have held this era of the Who in near universal acclaim, its principal has seen it as a defeat.
Quadrophenia was revived for the stage in 1996 with a number of guest stars, but it wasn’t until this winter, with the Who on the road back its core band — Townshend and Roger Daltrey, with Zak Starkey on drums, Simon Townshend on guitar and Pino Palladino on bass — that the album got an honest shot on stage.
The visuals were there to augment the story. Additional musicians were brought in to fill the gaps that Townsend and original bassist John Entwistle filled in the studio nearly 40 years ago. But, as evidence showed in 1973, it was Townshend again who was the driving force at TD Garden in Boston, directing the performance like a manic composer, adding a series of amazing sounds on his own.
The set started off almost modestly, as the band worked through “I Am the Sea” in the dark, kicking the lights on for “The Real Me,” which got an almost understated reading. As the night went on, this became more clear. As it is on vinyl, Quadrophenia slowly built a head of steam, kicking up at “The Punk and the Godfather” and “I’ve Had Enough,” reaching a furious pace by the time of the “5.15/Sea and Sand/Drowned” and boiling over by the conclusion of “The Rock” and “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
This was the most animated and engaging I’ve ever seen Townshend, who is typically an intense performer anyway. He took all the vocals that belonged to him on the original album, traded verses with Daltrey on “Helpless Dancer,” took the lead on “Drowned” and conducted the band through this complex performance via off-mic shouts and rapid hand signals.
In the past few years, Townshend has made no secret of his pride for Quadrophenia, calling “the Who’s towering triumph” and admitting that it will stand as his finest writing and recording effort. If his commitment to the music or the moment could be questioned in previous tours, it can’t be here. He was lively as he guided his band through the crown jewel of his artistic life.
He made sure he kept pace with his demands as well, pulling off a couple of furious solos on “5.15” and “Drowned” while adding a necessary delicacy to “I’m One” and “Cut My Hair.” Truly, he hasn’t had to wear this many hats on stage in a while, and he did so with full enthusiasm.
As always, there were nods to the past and an understanding that this was a celebration of a band’s past as much as living, breathing spectacle. During “5.15,” an isolated audio track of one of the late Entwistle’s signature bass solos came to life on the video screen, with Starkey matching his former rhythm section partner furiously. Later, during “Bell Boy,” a live track of original drummer Ketih Moon singing came back on the board, the Loon once again taking his place in the band.
Yet, while the band went to great lengths to pay tribute their overwhelming history, this show was the greatest acknowledgement of The Who as currently constructed. Simon Townshend, going on a decade of playing rhythm guitar and adding backing vocals to the band, was given key leads in “Quadrophenia” and “The Rock,” not to mention the lead vocal spotlight on “The Dirty Jobs.”
Again, it’s nearly impossible to imagine this production even being possible at this point without Starkey. Always a force of self-propulsion, his strengths were on its best display here as he navigated the myriad tricky rhythms at incredible speeds, and with aplomb.
Like most Who gigs, now and then, the night wasn’t perfect. Daltrey seemed to have issues with his monitors, struggling to hear himself and signaling to the side of the stage for more volume. It came to a head in the second set, when he lost his place during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and missed a cue.
But in a symbolic gesture of how far this relationship has come lately, Townshend zipped up to the mic stand to finish the second verse, jumping over to Daltrey to help his singer find his way back while he slashed through another set of power chords.
And though it was Townshend who was pushing the engine all night, egging on Starkey and helping Daltrey through whatever issues beset his equipment, it was the two of them, Townshend and Daltrey, who keep this thing viable. As “Tea & Theatre” lilted towards its conclusion, Daltrey did away with his earpiece and brought himself right next to Townshend, the two of them smiling and nodding to each other as Daltrey listened intently to the guitar, bringing the song and the show to a close.
On a night celebrating a career masterwork, it was a beautiful stroke to end the evening. The music of The Who, as much as ever, lives on.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org