Weâ€™ve been hearing for decades â€“ since at least 1982â€™s â€œFarewell Tourâ€ â€“ that The Who would be calling it quits as a touring band. So when Best Classic Bands relayed a quote that Pete Townshend gave to the Detroit Free Press at the long-delayed start of the second phase of The Who Hits 50! tour on February 27th: â€œWe might do occasional shows, but we wonâ€™t be touring againâ€ â€“ this time we believed him.
Townshend was just 37 during that â€™82 tour; Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle were both 38. Townshend is now 70. Daltrey just turned 72 (imagine that). And Entwistle, sadly, didnâ€™t make it to 58; heâ€™s been gone for nearly 14 years.
So the Hits 50! tour arrived at New Yorkâ€™s Madison Square Garden on Thursday night (March 3rd) and I can happily report that if you are on the fence as to whether you should see this classic rock band perform their career retrospective, do what you can to beg, borrow or steal a ticket. They were that good.
Iâ€™ve seen The Who perform live at least a dozen times, the first being the original Quadrophenia tour in 1974 at the very same venue. (Amazingly, as I write this, I realize that was the only time I ever saw them with Keith Moon.) The band augmented their stage show long ago; their current lineup boasts eight members.
After kicking things off with an explosive â€œWho Are Youâ€ (with Townshendâ€™s flourishing windmills punctuating things), the group played four of their earlier hits (see the complete setlist below). Introducing their first U.S. hit, â€œI Can See For Miles,â€ Townshend shared how the band had made their U.S. live debut in 1967 at famed DJ Murray the Kâ€™s legendary all-day show at the RKO Theater with â€œ4 or 5â€ sets.
Things began to seriously rock when The Who performed two Whoâ€™s Next favorites: â€œBehind Blue Eyesâ€ and â€œBargain.â€ Then came the familiar sounds of the jaw harp (from keyboard player Loren Gold) and harmonica heralding the start of a personal favorite, 1972â€™s â€œJoin Togetherâ€ (which was never included on a Who studio album). I had only heard this song performed once and while their current live version of it is a bit restrained; on the studio version, after Daltrey sings â€œI want you to joiiiinnn together with the bandâ€¦â€ Townshendâ€™s guitar chords scream at the one-minute mark. Itâ€™s still a crowd pleaser and I was grateful to hear it again.
This second North American leg of the tour was delayed for months to allow Daltrey to recover from a bout with viral meningitis. Iâ€™m happy to report that the man manages to hit the high notes. Thereâ€™s that moment towards the end of 1981â€™s â€œYou Better You Betâ€ when Daltreyâ€™s voice elevates â€“ â€œWhen I say I need you, you scream â€˜Youâ€™d betttter!â€ â€“ and, bless him, he absolutely nailed it.
Townshend picked up his acoustic guitar and sang one of Quadropheniaâ€˜s easily overlooked gems, â€œIâ€™m One.â€ Then Daltrey praised Townshendâ€™s (overlooked?) genius as a musical composer as the band launched into another personal favorite: Quadâ€˜s penultimate track, the instrumental â€œThe Rock.â€ On the 1973 recording, the song is a showcase for Moonâ€™s tremendous skill on drums, and when the screen behind the stage showed Moonie on the kit, the MSG crowd cheered.
But Moonâ€™s legacy overlooks that of his longtime replacement Zak Starkey, who is somehow not only 50 years old â€“ Ringoâ€™s kid is 50?!? â€“ but has now been performing with The Who for well over 20 years, far eclipsing Moonâ€™s tenure. (If you knew that Moon â€“ a close pal of Ringo â€“ is Zak Starkeyâ€™s godfather, raise your hand.)
A lovely extended piano intro from John Cory precedes Daltreyâ€™s showcase on â€œLove Reign Oâ€™er Me.â€ The vocalist was able to hit that songâ€™s tricky primal scream â€“ â€œLoooooveâ€ â€“ that comes towards the end; maybe not as well as his 28-year-old self did while recording it but solid nevertheless.
Four songs from Tommy and the two war horses, â€œBaba Oâ€™Rileyâ€ and â€œWonâ€™t Get Fooled Again,â€ triumphantly finished things up. Townshend introduced the band and the crowdâ€™s expectation was that maybe The Who would offer one final gem. â€œLong Live Rockâ€? â€œMagic Bus?â€ Alas, it wasnâ€™t meant to be and I realized that really may have been the last time Iâ€™d see them. Now itâ€™s your turn: Go see â€™em.