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Detroit Free Press, 28-02-2016
Half a century ago, nobody in America embraced the Who more quickly than Detroit, where the band’s loud, edge-of-chaos rock ‘n’ roll seemed custom-made for the place.
On Saturday night, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey served it up one last time for the Motor City — albeit in more polished form — as the band embarked on its final round of U.S. touring.
It was a full-bodied, free-spirited show for a capacity crowd at Joe Louis Arena, where the band’s surviving duo led an upbeat journey through the band’s hit repertoire. Detroit was the kickoff of a tour that’s set to run through May, making up for dates canceled in the fall after Daltrey’s debilitating bout with viral meningitis.
The manic energy may be tempered now, the mood more nostalgic than dangerous, but there was plenty of trademark Who on the Joe Louis stage in a show that conjured some of rock’s most iconic imagery: Daltrey’s marching moves and swinging microphone, Townshend’s windmilling guitar strokes and crisp rhythmic riffing.
Forty-nine years after the band’s first southeast Michigan visits — shows in Ann Arbor and Southfield in 1967 — Saturday night was a final hurrah for the Who and a region that promptly gravitated to the band all those years ago.
Will we see the Who again in Detroit?
“Nope,” Townshend, 70, told the Free Press backstage. “We might do occasional shows, but we won’t be touring again.”
The guitarist added: “You know, unlike a sports team, we can’t replace our members. It’s not dissimilar — you get to a certain age, you can do (only) a certain amount. You get to a certain age, and it’s tricky to do the road work.”
The touring grind may be tough, but for two hours onstage Saturday, there were triumphant moments to be had for Townshend, Daltrey and their six-man accompaniment, including longtime drummer Zak Starkey and Michigan native John Corey on keyboards.
Diving in with a tight, pulsing “Who Are You,” the band launched a set that hit most of the requisite touchstones — from a chugging, chiming “The Kids Are Alright” through a rollicking “My Generation” with its obligatory Townshend guitar vamp to a shining stretch of “Tommy” material.
The night wasn’t without the occasional sour note, including an unfortunately bungled “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to close the show. Daltrey started the evening strong but flagged toward the end, turning his back to cough and spit between numbers, handing over the high notes to guitarist Simon Townshend on songs like “Bargain,” and letting the crowd take over parts of “Baba O’Riley.”
Still, Daltrey had his moment in the sun, nailing a soaring “Love, Reign O’er Me” in one of the night’s musical and emotional peaks, complete with Townshend's cinematic guitar work.
The band had spent several days in metro Detroit ahead of the tour opener, with Townshend taking the opportunity to head into Waterford's new 45 Factory studio for a Friday night recording session, where he tracked a new acoustic song for an upcoming project. The '60s-inspired studio was opened in November by engineer Ryan McGuire, who for years has helped outfit Townshend's personal studios via his role with the Ferndale-based gear company Vintage King.
Townshend was a talkative, chipper presence throughout Saturday's set, recalling the '60s era when Detroit represented “real rock ‘n’ roll" and telling the Joe crowd: “We still think of you fondly.”
Backstage, Townshend reminisced about the Who’s early years in Detroit, where “Happy Jack” broke out of the local radio market to become the group’s first big U.S. hit and the band woodshedded at the Grande Ballroom to open its “Tommy” tour. He recounted the group’s first Michigan show — a June ’67 gig at Ann Arbor’s Fifth Dimension for “15 or 20 people” — where an unnamed MC5 member unsuccessfully tried to convince Townshend and his girlfriend to drop acid.
Ahead of Saturday's Joe Louis show, Townshend met with Grande founder Russ Gibb, 84, “teasing him about predicting that Paul McCartney was dead,” a nod to Gibb’s role in the infamous 1969 “Paul is Dead” hoax.
It was that kind of night — loose, warm and fittingly capped onstage by Daltrey as he sent the crowd off with what’s become his go-to maxim: “Be happy, be healthy and be lucky!”