Concert review: The Who at Verizon Center
By Dave McKenna,
There was a time when the Who was the most dangerous band in the world. Thirty-three years ago this fall, 11 fans died in a crush to see a show in Cincinnati. Two of the group’s four members died stereotypical (read: drugs) rock-and-roll deaths.
That danger disappeared long ago, but the show goes on for the Who. Surviving legends Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey performed Tuesday night at the Verizon Center to acknowledge and celebrate an almost 40-year-old rock opera and concept album, “Quadrophenia,” which was played in its entirety to open the two-hour show. Daltrey and Townshend, alongside then-vital bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle, had performed much the same set in December 1973, during the Capital Centre’s opening week, as the Landover arena was being hailed as a state-of-the-art venue. The building was demolished in 2002, deemed obsolete for rock shows.
In an age dominated by the downloaded single, the concept album format is as dated and quaint as the Betamax videocassette. But even back in the day, the theme that Townshend threaded through “Quadrophenia” to hold the song cycle together — an adolescent’s struggles amid a feud on the British seaside between rival gangs, the Mods and Rockers — was dubious.
Yet as Townshend, Daltrey and their large supporting musical cast proved, the songs are so great on their own, it doesn’t matter how you label them, how old they are and maybe even who performs them. Daltrey, 68, had his shirt unbuttoned to the waist to show off incredible fitness and surgery scars, and he spewed profanities with youthful vigor during “Doctor Jimmy.” Townshend, 67, dusted off the windmill power chord, doubtless the most thrilling stage move in arena rock history, to great effect during the world-weary “I’ve Had Enough.”
During “5:15,” a video of Entwistle, a founding band member who, until his 2002 death, could play as fast or as heavy as any rock bassist, appeared on large screens, and he jammed alongside his mates one more time. And a digitized Moon took over drums and vocals on “Bell Boy.”
Townshend and Daltrey could be seen taking occasional glimpses at the screens during these resurrections. Daltrey roared with as much glorious harshness as he’d ever roared as “Love Reign O’er Me,” a tune beloved by classic rock radio programmers and devoted Who fans alike, capped the concept portion of the show. Fans in the two-thirds-full arena, most of whom were of listening age when these tunes were fresh, couldn’t have screamed louder.
It could have been a little clearer, though. For most of the night, Townshend pounded on his Fender Stratocasters like they had done him really wrong, but the sounds coming out of the house PA system rarely reflected the violence being inflicted on the instruments. Daltrey and Townshend’s between-song banter was lost as well. One of the few discernible lines from what looked like an earnest Townshend monologue late in the show was his shout of, “I’ve got my hearing aids in!” as fans pleaded for more volume.
To reward the faithful for their hours of cheers and years of servitude, the band plugged back in after “Quadrophenia” for some greatest hits from other parts of the Who catalogue. There were no surprises, but the paying public would rather hear their heroes render “Pinball Wizard,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” for the millionth time than hear anything new.
If Daltrey and Townshend are at all tired of playing these beloved nuggets, they masked it wonderfully. Daltrey led the masses on the “Baba O’Riley” coda, about the “wasted” teenage rock fans, with a smile and no updated lyrics acknowledging the maturation of all concerned. That’s a shame. “Sexagenarian wasteland!” has a rock-and-roll ring to it.
McKenna is a freelance writer.