Pete Townshend confessed early in the Who’s Thursday appearance at Verizon Center that he had lost his voice. Just getting those words out seemed to pain him physically and emotionally. But no mere cold can stop this band; the deaths of half its original members didn’t. So even with Townshend, one of rock’s pioneering angry young men, reduced to merely a hoarse whisperer, the show went on.
And thank goodness it did. The night was carried by half a century of goodwill and, of course, some of the greatest rock-and-roll tunes ever put to vinyl.
Health issues were on the minds of fans even before the show started.
The Who was originally scheduled to stop in Washington in the fall, but that date and the whole tour commemorating the band’s 50-year history was postponed when lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, then 71, was diagnosed with viral meningitis. After months of recuperation, Daltrey’s voice throughout the two-hour set was amazingly virile for such a mature man.
And Townshend, who’ll turn 71 later this spring, looked strong himself during the opener, “Who Are You” He cranked up his right arm and delivered his signature guitar-hero move, the still-thrilling windmill strum. And he showed he can still go mobile when the music moves him, although deep knee bends have replaced the flying scissor kicks of old atop his arsenal of go-to arena rock moves.
But whatever illness caused the loss of singing ability — neither the cups of hot tea he sipped constantly nor the mouthfuls of lozenges could bring it back — seemed to wear him down shortly after the show went on. Townshend wasn’t able to provide the high harmonies on “Pictures of Lily” or “I Can See for Miles.” So the large backup band, including brother/guitarist Simon Townshend, and the audience willingly assumed Townshend’s vocal responsibilities for the first of many times in the night. As those vintage tunes played, video screens across the arena flashed photos of original drummer Keith Moon, who died of a drug overdose in 1978, and John Entwistle, who died of a cocaine-induced heart condition in 2002.
The set list stuck to the most classic pages of the band’s catalogue, although some songs (“Eminence Front” among them) that have been performed in other cities were scrapped because of Townshend’s ailment.
But as Townshend’s energy began flagging, the crowd’s involvement picked up. His every attempt to speak between songs brought incredible screams of support from the audience. The response obviously inspired Townshend. He could be seen mouthing, “I’m going to try. I’m going to give it a try,” to Daltrey before stepping up to the microphone to deliver a version of “I’m One” from “Quadrophenia” in a voice so coarse it made Tom Waits sound like Bette Midler. The emotional effect the performance had on everybody who witnessed and heard it can’t be put into words, and at that point the show kicked into another gear.
Daltrey spit out a mouthful of some liquid before absolutely roaring “Love!” during the climactic and cathartic coda of “Love Reign O’er Me.”
Near show’s end came the inevitable “Baba O’Riley.” Townshend tried making up for his failing vocal cords with a furious windmill delivery of perhaps rock’s most famous power chords. He courageously attempted to sing the iconic line about “teenage wasteland” but abandoned that effort after a few unintelligible syllables. The audience, a huge percentage of which was of an age that would put this amazing song on the soundtrack of their adolescence, screamed that line in Townshend’s stead with such intensity that it seemed they were screaming for their youth as much as they were cheering on the Who. What a night.