Kids no more, but the Who are still alright

by Ryan Snyder

For a band whose catalog has come to embody the pleasures and perils of youth, maybe better than that of any rock band ever, the Who’s greatest accomplishment might be growing old gracefully. Then again, they’ve been working on it for almost the entirety of their 48 years. Four decades ago, this was the band that dropped “Pictures of Lily” from their sets in 1968 after bassist John Entwistle could no longer sing the high part of the harmony — in effect, becoming a man like the song’s protagonist. Today, this is the band that has tuned down the trickier parts of Quadrophenia a half octave to accommodate the tapered vocal range of Roger Daltrey. The Who didn’t die before they got old, at least not according to Pete Townshend’s fist-pumping axiom. In fact, in their Friday night stop at the Greensboro Coliseum, there were times when they seemed headed in the opposite direction.

While it’s the strong favorite as their last great work, Quadrophenia is sort of a curious artifact for the Who to have unearthed for a full presentation on their current criss-cross across the continent. It’s also their most cerebral, and as became apparent over its 17 sprawling numbers, their most devoid of hits before the passing of drummer Keith Moon. But for a band adored for its anthems, Quadrophenia is itself one of grander magnitude. It’s an enduring contemplation on frivolous adolescence, not just for the selfish protagonist Jimmy or the aging faces of the band themselves, but for the thousands of sixtysomethings shouting along with Daltrey’s resolute chorus on “Cut My Hair,” still charged up by the walloping soul of opening act Vintage Trouble.

The headliners would eventually match the vigor of their support, but not before an opening stanza that revealed their age.

Daltrey and Townshend have very publicly dealt with diminished senses — Townshend’s hearing problems kept him sidelined while Daltrey toured solo, and Daltrey’s declining eyesight led to shelving his microphone acrobatics for a time. The latter was apparent when he whacked himself with it while twirling it around, marking the mid-song tempo change in “I’m One,” though Townshend’s ears seemed to be working just fine when he cantankerously called out a rogue click track at the end of “The Real Me.” Why it was necessary in the first place was questionable, particularly with human metronomes in bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Zak Starkey driving the rhythm behind them.

Once they shook off the opening rust, Daltrey and Townshend acquitted themselves marvelously. The post-vocal surgery Daltrey is almost a different animal entirely than the one who last visited the Piedmont in 2009; the higher ends of his range are gone and he worked through some rough patches early on, but he became noticeably stronger as the night went on. His vocal eruption on the climatic “Love Reign O’er Me” was as close to perfection as one could expect from the 68-year-old who was chiding his vocal cords to “wake up” by this time three years ago.

Townshend’s voice was sharp as well, even if his singing parts on “Cut My Hair” aren’t the most demanding aspects of Quadrophenia. He remained hunched over his music stand for Daltry’s parts, suggesting that there was still room for error as he adapted to the lower key of the opening numbers. The backing horns on “The Real Me,” in particular, seemed to pull back on the upper ranges, almost as if to keep Daltrey from instinctively letting loose too early on. Townshend provided the physical drama, however, with stinging guitar strokes during “The Punk and the Godfather” while gazing upon overhead projections of his much younger self.

Of course, there were enough windmills to power the Netherlands for a weekend alone during the calamitous “I’ve Had Enough” It was sentimentality, however, that truly reigned. Palladino and Starkey were more than capable of delivering devastating solos, but acknowledgements of Moon and Entwistle were requisite, and a digital s’ance with them on three overhead LCD panels was probably preferable to outright hologramming them in. Moon’s sloppily cheerful vocals on “Bell Boy” were a welcome reprieve from Quadrophenia’s buttoned-up presentation, and upon revisiting the recently released demos, an absolute necessity in toning down pretention levels that were close to spiraling out of control.

Likewise, Entwistle’s circa 1997 bass solo on “5:15” was fun to watch, his ultra nimble fingers belying his stark white hair, and the camera retrofitted to his fret board was likely rather cutting-edge at the time. Townshend, not one to mince words or skew his longtime bandmate’s reputation, offered the comment of the night later on about the Ox: “He’s probably flapping around Vegas right now looking for cocaine.”

As much as the Moon and Entwistle novelty seemed to be enjoyed, it still felt reductive of what the Who is in 2012 for two players, who have served in their posts for over a decade, to be squeezed into utilitarian, almost mechanical roles. Thoug h he’ll never attain an iota of Moon’s status, Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) himself has sat in the live drum chair for a longer period of time than Moon himself did. That he gave the spotlight away to a man who’s been dead for 34 years is a testament to Moon’s unimpeachable legend, but Starkey still asserted his presence with sophistication. He’s not at all the animalistic basher that Moon was, keeping his elbows neatly tucked during complex rolls and fills like his father, and essentially being the model of precision and power needed of him. Likewise for Palladino, who stood in the shadows for the entirety of the set, further hidden behind dark sunglasses, but always bopping rigidly and feverishly.

Throughout the first 14 years of the Who, encores were a precious rarity, a policy that Daltrey explained during his solo tour was to absolve them of the irksome pseudo-suspense that drives the whole concept. In the case, there was no questioning whether they would return for more, only with what. Laden with hits, there was no ignoring the encore’s resemblance to the 2010 Super Bowl halftime show, with only “See Me, Feel Me” swapped for “Behind Blue Eyes” and Daltrey’s cracking vocals traded for a muscular growl that punctuated “Baba O’Riley” and a faithful “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Daltrey and Townshend dismissed their band at its conclusion, with one final serenade left. As the only song in the set recorded after Moon’s death, “Tea & Theatre” is easily interpreted as the most autobiographical. “We did it all, didn’t we?” Daltrey asked as his voice finally started showing signs of wear. The acoustic number relinquishes the burdens of the past and embraces kids like Daltrey and Townshend becoming old men. Even in that reality, they’re alright.

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