In concert: The Who (Toronto; November 23, 2012)

(click images to enlarge)

In order to get Quadrophenia across on this current North American tour, Pete Townshend isn’t saying anything. It’s got to be hard for rock royalty’s chattiest Cathy to keep it zipped for 90 minutes, but the record didn’t have any between-song chatter, and there’re enough books, liners and docs to explain the plot to new initiates. At long last he’s letting the music do the talking.

Full-album concert presentations seem custom-made for Townshend’s earnest, glowering genius, and The Who, 1969-74 vintage, were an exercise in bringing script to stage, in an ever-widening gyre of ambition. Rock’s most ostentatiously talented performers – one with first-ballot hall of famers at every position – that Who restlessly brayed and brawled, initially as a punishing power-trio-plus singer, and eventually, as a locomotive occasionally run off the tracks by faulty backing tapes. By the time Townshend realized he’d overreached with Quadrophenia – the technology simply hadn’t kept pace with his demands – his righteous fury had become The ‘Oo’s fifth member. The band settled into middle age after that:  new songs flitting between autobiography and harangue, an inessential record on the eve of Keith Moon’s death, fitful tours with a replacement drummer, retirement before age 40. They died when they got old.

This older/wiser/reborn Who, a dependable touring jukebox since 1996, is actually touring Quadrophenia for the second time. A 1996-97 tour hedged bets with 15 players and extraneous exposition to explain the Quad conceit (voiceover narratives; Billy Idol and Gary Glitter walk-on roles), but in trusting his audience’s Wiki-sourcing capabilities, Townshend’s doing Quad‘s live flow a big favour.

 

From the moment the house lights dimmed at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto last Friday (November 23rd) it was like a huge, public listening party. Arrangements hewed closely to the recorded versions, the only deviations coming from a false start on “The Punk And The Godfather” (mike failure on Townshend’s guitar), a double-length “5:15,” and some pauses between songs. The 82-minute album wrapped in 92, after which Pete finally spoke. Typical Townshend. You knew the words were bubbling up from the minute he took the stage. Apologized for ignoring the crowd’s cheers. Recalled boozy nights and venereal diseases from Toronto visits past. And so forth.

As usual, Roger Daltrey said less but took the lion’s share of the singing. He had a good night. In fact, Daltrey sounds rejuvenated, crisper and brighter than on any other post-John Entwistle tour. Always The Who’s cleanest physical specimen, his descent into murky shout-singing has been frustrating and unfortunate, in itself the reason I didn’t bother seeing them play Hamilton in 2008. Whether it’s Quad’s lower register vocals or the miracles of modern science, he’s recaptured some of the spiky brio of yore, imbuing flat-out rockers like “The Real Me,” “The Punk And The Godfather” and “Doctor Jimmy” with the sputtering panache Townshend’s best songs’ve always demanded of him.

On the pounding, brass-charged “5:15,” he roared, out of his brain on the train. On the tender-to-thundering “Love, Reign O’er Me,” he wailed. And, oh, the Toronto crowd had been waiting. As one of Quad’s recurring motifs, “Love” made three earlier appearances in the program, and each time the crowd sang its refrain, even providing the answering “rain over me, rain over me” line where it wasn’t required. The closing aria after an hour-and-a-half of preamble, “Love” owned the audience from its opening piano figure. Applause like waves battering the shore. Soft verse, bruising chorus, soft verse, bruising chorus. And then that gorgeous, swinging “dry and dusty road” bridge, one of the finest things Townshend’s ever built, shimmering strings whistling past the ear, tawny guitar and piano licks spattering about like sudden summer rain. Oh, God, I need a drink of cool, cool ra-aa-ainnn. Two shattering screams of “looooove,” at either end of the last chorus. A crashing conclusion on a brown, “A Day In The Life”-reminiscent note. The Who swung for the fences with this one. Home run.

No wonder Roger left the talking to Pete.

 

The video screen backdrop – three high-def orbs hung above a widescreen display – cycled Mod-specific images all night long. Entwistle and Moon weren’t forgotten. Both of ‘em got tribute solos culled from old tapes. A late-career Ox solo appeared midway through “5:15” – technically, it’s a startling, damn awesome thing – but it ran on a little long and detracted from the song. Moon’s solo, however, was brilliantly rendered. Before the show I wondered how they’d cover his absence in “Bell Boy.” Well, here they went for the jugular, inserting the video and audio from the May 1974 Charlton show into the performance, Moony’s mug lighting up the centre video orb with live isolation shots of Townshend and Daltrey bookending. By cleverly featuring present-day Who drummer Zak Starkey in the centre orb during the rest of the song – his lone video spotlight all night – The Who turned “Bell Boy” into an emotionally resonant device any Who fan would dig.

Pete’s younger sib Simon covers high vocal notes and second guitar as well as ever.  And as in 1996-97, he also sang a piercing lead on “The Dirty Jobs,” a surprise highlight punctured by some of Starkey’s most Moonlike drumming. If Daltrey’s not up to reaching those high notes, Simon’s the guy for the job. And speaking of dirty jobs, Pino Palladino’s been turned up on this tour. Stepping in for Entwistle on four days’ notice in 2002 must have been the ultimate in thankless tasks – go ahead, you try it – but he’s playing with more pluck than before. Likewise, Starkey seems more inclined to go for broke. It feels like these guys are full band members now (although, unless I missed the news release, only Starkey’s been given keys to the office). They make a great backing unit. With Townshend still in remarkable form – he windmills and sings with purpose, clarity and pissed-off conviction – this Who isn’t in danger of damaging its rep for chops.

 

The encore cherry-picked from their stable of FM staples: three from Who’s Next, plus “Pinball Wizard” and “Who Are You,” understandably safe choices after 90 minutes of deep cataloguing. No disappointments here: I admit it’s nice to get a break from the autopiloted Tommy selections of recent tours, although every Who show needs a taste of that “Pinball” riff.  And the world really does stop spinning when “Won’t Get Fooled Again” heads into that elongated synth trance. That Townshend could bind such brilliant, unhinged players to that whirring soundtrack, suspend time for the breakdown, and usher everything back in on Daltrey’s Herculean bellow, is the mark of genius. The Who’s best song, they never deliver anything less than a good reading, and even on one of his off-nights (Toronto 2006, to name one) Roger keeps enough in reserve to make that final scream count. On a good night, it’s groovy gravy.

By show’s end only Roger and Pete remained. (The latter had never left the stage: amazing, considering he’d done a book singing earlier in the day. When do you sleep, Pete?) Closing with 2006’s elegiac “Tea And Theatre” is tradition now, an acoustic lament at odds with the Sturm und Drang tethered to The Who legend. But this is where we’re at in 2012: in-fighting and chemical excess consigned to history, the two survivors – the most important members of a group where everyone was indispensable to building the legend – now gentler and warmer, no longer in unhappy competition with past glories, but accepting them, and working to honour them. “It’s a tough, tough ride,” Townshend admitted of staging Quadrophenia, but he ought to be very satisfied with the results to date.

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