OTTAWA — Rock legend Roger Daltrey is keeping the music of the Who alive in a way that shows respect and fondness for the work of his old mates. As demonstrated in front of a small crowd of less than 3,000 at Scotiabank Place on Wednesday, the singer has rounded up a terrific band, evened out the volume, scaled back the bombast and paid careful attention to the arrangements.
The primary mission of Daltrey’s current tour is to play the music of Tommy, the 1969 rock opera written by Who guitarist Pete Townshend, who reportedly declined the opportunity to tour because he didn’t want to aggravate his tinnitus. The guitar god sent his blessings, though, putting a stamp of approval on Daltrey’s goal of reviving Tommy in a concert setting.
Without Pete, the next best thing was to enlist the musical talent of Simon Townshend, Pete’s younger brother, on guitar and vocals. Simon’s voice isn’t exactly the same as Pete’s but it’s probably closer than anyone else’s on the planet, while his guitar work displays a similar balance between power and finesse.
The roles of the late John Entwhistle and drummer Keith Moon, may they rest in peace, have also been filled with eminently capable personnel. The band also includes powerhouse drummer Scott Devours and inventive bassist Jon Button, plus keyboardist Loren Gold and musical director Frank Simes, who is no slouch on guitar. Daltrey has been playing with these men for several years, and their knowledge of the material shone.
The first half of the concert was devoted to songs from Tommy, with the exception of the 10-minute Underture that fills space on the original double album. The concept tells the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a cult figure. It’s not the catchiest or most anthemic of Who albums, and probably only the most dedicated fans knew every track, but there were enough singles from the album to maintain interest for a casual listener. Starting with Overture and It’s a Boy, we heard the story through the impeccable delivery of classic songs like Acid Queen, Pinball Wizard, I’m Free and Christmas.
In jeans and a white dress shirt that got more unbuttoned as the concert progressed, the fit 67-year-old twirled his microphone and shimmied, a bit awkwardly, as he sang. His voice had an extra rasp to it, which Daltrey explained was triggered by recent exposure to second-hand smoke. After his throat surgery a couple of years ago, the singer said he developed an allergic reaction to smoke. He encouraged the crowd to nibble on cookies instead of sparking up joints.
Skipping a formal intermission, the proceedings slid into the part that everyone was waiting for: the hits. Daltrey, who had said little during the Tommy portion of the show, suddenly became chatty and told some insightful stories about his compadres. One example: the late Who bassist John Entwhistle used to be able to sing like a bird, Daltrey revealed, until he lost his voice after a party.
Pictures of Lily lacked that high-pitched sweetness, but was still enjoyable, while Behind Blue Eyes, featuring Daltrey on acoustic guitar, was a highlight, and Simon did a great job singing Going Mobile. Daltrey also worked in some of his influences, giving a shout-out to the Chieftains for reminding him about the trad tunes “I had forgot I had cut my teeth on” and to Johnny Cash for making his first job in a factory bearable. “(Johnny) still sits very deep in my soul,” Daltrey said, downtuning his voice to tackle a rearranged Ring of Fire.
The concert came to a satisfying close with anthems like Who Are You, Young Man Blues and Baba O’Riley, before Daltrey surprised the audience with a ukulele tune that Pete always refused to play. “Pete said he looked f--- stupid with a ukulele, so here I am,” Daltrey said, proving that ego is not a mandatory characteristic for a rock legend. In all, it was an excellent concert.