J. Adrian Stanley
DENVER - Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are old. Keith Moon and John Entwistle are dead. So what is it that persuades masses of people to pay obscene ticket prices to see the Who live, as fans did at Denver’s Pepsi Center Tuesday?
Well, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders seemed to have a pretty good grasp on what that magic is. Opening for The Who, she scrutinized the crowd.
"There’s some youngsters," she observed. "You don’t know about rock."
Hynde still has a good grip on the concept, and The Who are simply masters of the form. So, what is rock? Well, for one thing, it’s performance skills. In the studio, the songs can speak for themselves, but there’s got to be a little more on the stage.
The Who didn’t disappoint. They muscled their way through punchy, abbreviated versions of many of their best tunes. "I Can’t Explain" landed like a hammer on the expectant crowd, and offered the first Townshend windmill of the night. "The Seeker" and "Substitute" followed. Classic photos of the band flashed across a screen – a subtle homage to the band’s past, and its lost members.
Those who think the Who should have stopped playing when Moon died, or at least when Entwistle passed, didn’t have much ground to stand on. Though the guys are certainly missed, Daltrey and Townshend’s can still blow an amphitheatre apart.
Daltrey’s voice still has its husky, commanding presence, and he still gets his groove on on-stage. Townshend is simply a remarkable guitar player. The compositions were tight, well-rehearsed, and organized for the biggest impact.
For instance, the dreamy "Fragments," a song from the Who’s new album, was sandwiched between the high-voltage "Substitute" and the sing-along "Who Are You."
"Behind Blue Eyes" and "Real Good Looking Boy," with their sentmental beauty, worked well side-by-side, especially since the rock-out portion of "Blue Eyes" was so fiery that even the inebriated man standing next to me was inspired to throw me the devil horns.
There was plenty of new material in the show which met with a more enthusiastic reaction then one might expect. An abbreviated version of the mini-opera "Wire & Glass" from the new album "Endless Wire" was short, sweet, and well-selected. The new song, "Mike Post Theme," with its wailed chorus was probably the best new track in the live setting, though the softer "Man in a Purple Dress" also interested the crowd.
Of course, "Baba O’Riley," "Won’t Get Fooled Again," and "You Better You Bet" got a bit more of a crazed reaction. And the band seemed to genuinely enjoy playing the classics. Sweat dripped from Daltrey’s forehead. He looked strong, fit and excited. Townshend almost looked mischievous, throwing windmills strategically and waiting for the rapturous screams.
The encore gave the crowd a mini-set that started with "Pinball Wizard" complete with airborne mic acrobatics by Daltrey, and ended in "See Me, Feel Me," "Listening to You," and a bitter-sweet "Tea & Theatre" (which sounded more than a little autobiographical).
In the final moments, Daltrey and Townshend stood side by side, their arms thrown on each others shoulders in camaraderie as they stared out at the sea of faces.
Maybe what it really is that separates bands like the Who (besides extraordinary talent) is humility. The band never forgets who put them on the stage in the first place, and they come ready to show their appreciation with spirit, vigor and enthusiasm.