In the annals of rock there stand but a handful of bands whose very existence not only encapsulate the fury, attitude and glorious chaos of the genre, but have simply come to define it.
The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, Stooges, Ramones and Clash undoubtedly make this elite list; Hendrix, The Doors, Clapton, Bowie, New York Dolls, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, too.
The Who is unquestionably another, and founding members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s sold-out, lights-out performance at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum Thursday, Feb. 21 is undeniable testament to the band’s ferocious legacy, nearly 50 years after they and John Entwistle and Keith Moon began destroying instruments together in 1964.
Not only do they still have it, in short, they absolutely killed.
Touring in support of their Quadrophenia And More North American and European tour—one of their last gigs on this leg—the duo rolled through the rock opera flawlessly, exuding the same musical prowess and virtuosity they’ve become infamous for throughout the better part of half a century.
Quadrophenia, of course, is the band’s second rock opera and sixth studio album, released in 1973—the musical story of protagonist “Jimmy,” as reflected through the four band members’ personalities. From the liner notes on its vinyl sleeve: “A tough guy, a helpless dancer” [“Helpless Dancer,” Daltrey’s theme]; “A romantic, is it me for a moment?” [“Is It Me?” Entwistle]; “A bloody lunatic, I’ll even carry your bags” [“Bell Boy,” Moon]; “A beggar, a hypocrite, love reign o’er me” [“Love Reign O’er Me,” Townshend].
“Schizophrenic?” it reads. “I’m Bleeding Quadrophenic.”
Firstly, let’s just state the obvious: There are no replacements for John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Not for their musicianship, not for their personalities, not for their sheer presence. They were forces of nature. Irreplaceable. Not going to happen. The first date of the original Quadrophenia tour is forever cemented in rock mythology as the infamous gig in which Moon passed out onstage after ingesting elephant tranquilizers.
“Can anybody play the drums?” asked Townshend. “I mean somebody good.”
They had “somebody good” Thursday night: Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son and Moon’s godchild. (Yes, Ringo Starr’s son and Moon’s godchild!) If anybody were to fill in for Keith, who died in 1978 at 32, I’d want Starkey. (Though Scot Halpin did a damn good job at that 1973 gig.) Starkey’s been rocking out with the rest of the band since 1996 and has also done stints with Paul Weller, Johnny Marr and Oasis, among others.
Filling in for Entwistle, as he’s done since Entwistle’s passing in 2002, was Pino Palladino—one of the most sought-after bassists around who’s played with too many artists and groups to list here. Backing up Townshend on guitar was his younger brother Simon, who’s collaborated with The Who in varying degrees since 1975.
Frank Simes, Loren Gold, John Corey, J. Greg Miller and Reggie Grisham rounded out the group on keyboards and brass, respectively. Vintage Trouble opened.
The band moved through energetic renditions of “I Am The Sea,” “The Real Me,” “Quadrophenia,” “Cut My Hair,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “I’m One,” “The Dirty Jobs,” “Helpless Dancer” and “Is It In My Head”—archival footage of them destroying their gear melded with scenes of the ocean flashing behind and above them onstage from giant video screens, Townshend hammering windmills on a red and white Stratocaster and black and white Telecaster between switches to what resembled a Gibson Hummingbird. By “I’ve Had Enough,” Daltrey was swinging the microphone alongside him like a lasso before the music collapsed into a medley accentuated by an aqua-colored ocean of light drowning the audience that flirted with the album’s closer “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
It’s not as though Moon and Entwistle weren’t exactly present throughout the gig, either. The group’s outstanding 10-minute rendition of the Who classic “5:15” featured a several-minute long solo from the bassist, broadcast in all its finger-tapping glory from the aforementioned video screens, the place exploding with the roar of the sea while waves of red, white and purple light crashed upon them and basked the soon-departing New York Islander’s championship banners hanging from the rafters in an otherworldly glow.
The audience sang along, answering the chorus “Inside outside” with an echoing “Leave me a-a-lo-one!”
”Inside outside,” sang the duo. “No-where is ho-ome.”
“Inside outside, where have I be-en!? Out of my brain on the five-fif-teen,” they resounded.
Townshend and Daltrey plowed on, the guitarist dropping more windmills, strangling the red strat’s whammy bar and slapping its body while Daltry spun and slung the mic alongside him, beckoning to the crowd—the band steamrolling along like a well-oiled machine intent on saving each onlooker’s very souls, as they’ve done so many times before.
Townshend, who wrote the masterpiece double album and who’s deaf in one ear after Moon infamously detonated a drum set full of explosives during a 1967 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, maintained his ferocity and command throughout “Sea and Sand” and “Drowned” into a pseudo-emotional “Bell Boy,” which featured archival footage of Moon on the screens, singing the song from behind his kit as Daltrey stood in homage, almost singing to him as he pointed at him.
People around me began rising to their feet, some holding beers, also pointing and singing along to the beloved wild man behind the drums with a gong.
The coliseum erupted into applause for Moon as slow-motion shots finished out the number and cascaded into more footage and sound of waves crashing along the shore, broken by the aching horns of “Doctor Jimmy.” Excellent version, by the way.
Another medley with quick tastes of “Bell Boy,” then into “The Rock” and another medley, with Mods on bikes behind them and guitar licks intermingling and bouncing off these unbelievable, bent and stretched notes exhaled from the horns, sustained the colors while Starkey slugged rail road-train drum rolls and Simon soloed his pseudo-Indian tones from a starburst Les Paul. The beats shifted into tribal patterns as Townshend’s searing squeals rode along them, then crisscrossed and became one again with crashing drums and Daltrey nowhere to be found.
The movement collapsed and slid into just absolutely searing guitars and horns, again momentarily touching, almost-kissing, the lips merely brushing against each other with “Love, Reign O’er Me” then retreating back to the sea. Violent images of protests and revolt blared behind the soundscape as Townshend pointed to the back rows, then returned to the medley punctuated by bleeding f****** horns and a quick shot of “Bell Boy” before fading into blue strobe lights, a roaring crowd and the tiny piano twinkling of “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
Daltrey stood stoic as multicolored lights melted around him, the crowd sending lightning stabs of whistles and shouts up his way. A painful, bleeding piano took flight as he confessed, “Only loooove, can make it raaaain,” atop pulsating synthesizers and Townshend’s descending guitar notes, culminating into earsplitting shrieks of “Looooo-ooove! Reign o’er me!” Daltrey’s shirt was fully unbuttoned as he begged.
The synthesizers moved beneath Daltrey during the verse, accentuated by smears of light dripping behind him while Townshend simply bent the living shit out of the lament’s heat-ripping notes from a Telly. Then Daltrey’s gut-churning bellows stabbed the air, tore through the crowd’s eardrums and were injected directly into their bloodstreams.
The entire coliseum rose as one in applause as the house lights were turned on and Townshend clapped his hands over his head.
“Thank you so much for coming out to see us tonight,” he said, as Daltrey tossed a tambourine to a kid in the third row. “So glad to be back in the fucking neighborhood.”
He then thanked the band individually, the roar of the audience unrelenting. It was 10:10 p.m. and the band launched into a devastating version of “Who Are You” as the crowd remained on their feet and sang along. More windmills, more flashing strobes, the entire coliseum was on fire.
Next was an emotional “Behind Blue Eyes,” featuring every single voice in attendance singing along, so much so the coliseum became one gigantic harmonious echo chamber. Then, an extraordinary rendition of “Pinball Wizard”—Townshend strumming while a million circles of tiny lights swirled among the crowd.
All of a sudden, you could hear it: the opening whirlwind that is unmistakably the classic and fan-favorite “Baba O’Riley.” Daltrey waved the microphone like a f****** sword as the defining chords hit. The audience, still on its feet, sang the bridge and the chorus with such force and passion that Daltrey never even attempted much of it himself, simply holding out the mic to the crowd. It was an unbelievable moment, people standing up and their arms outstretched to the sky in celebration through the end and into the beginning of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
The guitars of that rabble-rouser sliced through the air like chainsaws.
“New York!” shouted Daltrey. “Let’s hear it!”
Again the crowd filled in the blanks of the chorus, and once again many raised their arms in triumph. With the synthesizers still pulsating, the entire coliseum began clapping and stomping their feet along in time. Then, Daltrey at his finest—reclaiming the chorus from the crowd, it was he who yelped out the crushing, blood-curdling scream that closed out the number before saluting the captivated audience and tossing out another tambourine to another little kid in the third row.
The band then stood together, arms around each other, and posed, center-stage.
The cheers and applause deafening, Townsend picks up the acoustic while Daltrey explains to the crowd the next song, “Tea and Theater,” has to do with “one of the last of the merchant seaman,” “19 years old,” who on “Christmas Eve 1941…was torpedoed.”
“His name was Chuck Taylor,” he said. “This is for those guys.”
“Will you have some tea?” Daltrey asks, eyes closed, while the house lights turn purple and Townshend carefully terrorizes the guitar, head down, perched over and strumming.
“No one has said ‘thank you’ to the maestro Pete Townshend,” says Daltrey afterward, putting his arm around him and embracing each other.
For a split second, I thought Townshend may have considered smashing the guitar. I like to think he did.
“Thank you,” Daltrey told the audience. “May you be very happy. May you be very healthy. And extraordinarily lucky.”
With that, they left the stage to continued applause and cheers, the clamoring only waning when Johnny Cash began bellowing “Ring of Fire” through the house speakers.
Townsend and Daltrey sustain the legacy of the band. They keep the songs alive. And the music, well, the music speaks for itself. It still resonates, still inspires, still rocks. Still devastates.
Long live The Who.
The Who wrap up their 2013 North American Quadrophenia and More tour with a Feb. 28 benefit concert for Teen Cancer America and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center called Who Cares at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The gig will also feature Elvis Costello & The Imposters.