George A. Paul
To keep a machine running smoothly, you need to lubricate the chassis from time to time. The same is true of the human voice.
That’s the impetus behind the Use It or Lose It Tour, Roger Daltrey’s first solo North American concert trek since an orchestral outing in 1994. Now 65, the Who’s singer wanted to stay in shape until the band returns to active duty next year, as music partner Pete Townshend is reportedly writing songs for a new project that might become another Who album.
So Daltrey assembled a live group, including guitarist/vocalist Simon Townshend (Pete’s younger brother and a regular presence on Who tours since the Quadrophenia run of 1996) plus guitarist and musical director Frank Simes, bassist Jon Button, keyboardist Loren Gold and drummer Scott Devours. All were consistently impressive Saturday night at Daltrey’s not completely sold-out stop at the Orpheum Theatre.
As for their leader, well, let’s just say it took a while for the old engine to warm up. And though these guys have been playing together for a week, this L.A. gig often felt like a tour opener, with kinks still needing to be ironed out.
Daltrey appeared alone onstage with a ukulele (below right) to launch the nearly two-hour set with “Blue, Red and Grey,” a graceful tune from The Who by Numbers (1975). He joked about the instrument’s size and said, “I love this song. I’ve been trying to get Pete to do it for years.” Barely a minute in, however, nothing was going right and Daltrey abruptly stopped. Later he’d quip, “We know we’re rough ‘n’ ready. This isn’t the (freaking) Madonna show.”
The musicians first appeared for a fiery take on “Who Are You.” The five-man backing harmonies were truly sublime during another rarely played Who tune, “Pictures of Lily,” yet Daltrey struggled to be heard during the full-bore rocker “The Real Me.” Complaining that the drums were too loud, he told roadies to remove the plexiglass barrier surrounding Devours’ kit.
Yet why bother with note-perfect Who renditions when Pete isn’t around? If a singer is finally unchained from the constraints of his main band, it’s more daring and creative to shake up arrangements of big hits.
The veteran Brit also would have been wise to delve deeper into his seven solo albums and movie music work. We got three total from those categories; personally, I would’ve enjoyed hearing anything from 1985’s AOR radio staple Under a Raging Moon or The Lost Boys soundtrack.
Another attempt at “Blue, Red and Grey” failed, but a half-hour in Daltrey’s gravelly voice finally came to life. The sparse ballad “A Second Out” (a demo that never found a place on a regular studio album) featured his quiet harmonica work and passionate vocal. Two of the evening’s highlights came from Daltrey’s last solo work, 1992’s “Rocks in the Head”: the folksy, buoyant “Days of Light” (prefaced by an anecdote about pre-Who days working as a sheet metal worker) and the groove rocker “Who’s Gonna Walk on Water.”
A couple of acoustic Celtic-tinged numbers from Largo –- an obscure 1998 all-star concept album helmed by the Hooters (!) –- also fared well. Simon ably took over lead vocals on “Going Mobile,” originally sung by his brother on 1971’s Who’s Next. Both electric guitarists totally tore it up on Mose Allison’s sizzling “Young Man Blues” as Daltrey did his trademark microphone-cord lasso moves and proved that his blues chops remained intact. For “Baba O’Riley,” though, he sounded taxed.
Third time was the charm for “Blue, Red and Grey.” As the concert wound down, Daltrey honored a fan request for “Without Your Love,” his biggest solo single from the 1980 film McVicar, apparently never performed live before. With Simon on mandolin, the idyllic ballad was enthralling.
A tribute to Johnny Cash (“the guy who inspired me as much as Elvis”) came in the form of an iffy “Ring of Fire” before the evening was capped off with a pair of winsome Who rockers, “Naked Eye” and their version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
Despite some misfires, pacing issues and lack of special guests (in Seattle, Eddie Vedder joined in), it was still a treat to see Daltrey in a small venue fronting another top-notch band.
Set list: Roger Daltrey, The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2009<br />Blue, Red and Grey (fragment) / Who Are You / Pictures of Lily / The Real Me / Blue, Red and Grey (fragment) / Behind Blue Eyes / A Second Out / Days of Light / Freedom Ride / Gimme a Stone / Who’s Gonna Walk on Water / Going Mobile / I Can See for Miles / Young Man Blues / Squeeze Box / Baba O’Riley / Blue, Red and Grey / Without Your Love / Ring of Fire / Naked Eye / Summertime Blues