Sure, The Who's past few "reunion" tours have been a bit bloated. The Tommy anniversary tour in '89 had a dozen or so extra musicians to dilute the band's raw power, and Pete Townshend played acoustic guitar and kept his "windmilling" to a minimum. The Quadrophenia tour of a few years ago left a lot of fans cold by sticking almost exclusively to that material with the exception of a couple of hits performed acoustically at the end of each night. So what can one expect from the 2000 model of the band? Well, first of all, this is not the band that has been on the road billed as The Who for at least the past 15 years. This version is stripped down, lean and back to basics. Thankfully.
I was a bit worried by the opening set's obligatory, not-all-that-convincing one-two punch of "I Can't Explain" and "Substitute." Not only was the sound cavernous in the definitely not-sold-out arena, but John Entwistle's bass was barely audible. The band seemed pretty close to "phoning it in" at this point, but I forgot all about any problems halfway through "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere." My attention turned to the amazing performance by drummer Zak Starkey (yes, he's Ringo's son). I've loved The Who for a long time, but I never really cared for this song.
Tonight, in Atlanta, I got it. Zak's performance seemed to spark the old Pete back into action, and the arms started flying. The 50-something Townshend began leaping and sawing at his guitar as Roger Daltrey pranced in place flinging his microphone around by the cord like a madman. For most of the night they managed to keep this energy up. Of course, nothing gets to Entwistle; the "Ox" simply stood there motionless in his red leather jacket except for the very strange motion of his fingers on the bass.
While Zak Starkey is certainly no Keith Moon (who is?), he is an unbelievable drummer capable of conjuring the spirit of Moon and seeing the band kicked back into that mode is a thrill to witness. [ed. note: school-trained drummer Simon Phillips missed the point on earlier Who tours!] I think Townshend always needs something to base a Who show around. This time it was Lifehouse, an album intended to be the double concept album follow-up to Tommy. Much of this material ended up on the nearly perfect Who's Next and a few other of the cuts as singles. Pete has always regretted that it was never finished and he tried to remedy that 30 years later. In 1999, Lifehouse (in radio play form) was finally released. So in essence, this was the tour to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Lifehouse and it's first live airing as a completed project.
After John Entwistle sang his Who's Next radio staple "My Wife," the band locked firmly into Lifehouse territory. Many of these featured the long-time "fifth" member of the band, keyboard player "Rabbit" Bundrick. It was his job to capture those bubbly percussive sounds on songs like "Relay" and "Who Are You." Other numbers intended for the aborted project were particularly stunning. "Bargain" was a huge sing-along and "Baba O'Riley" was without a doubt a highlight of the show. I personally preferred hearing more obscure songs like "I Don't Even Know Myself," but I couldn't deny the power of so many thousands of people singing the "teenage wasteland" chorus of the popular tune. As "Baba O'Riley" swelled larger and larger near the end, Roger Daltrey joined on harmonica to produce a frenzy of sound with the band as the song got faster and faster and faster. After the song finally relented, Pete even felt it necessary to comment on the audience's power. He regaled us with a humorous story about a "brilliant idea" he had on stage in the '70s. Apparently, it was a very hot night, so he decided that maybe if he coaxed the entire audience to blow toward the stage, they'd get a nice pleasant breeze. On his count of three, he told us of the ungodly wind that roared upon them.
Then he wryly commented, "It smelt of 25,000 types of mint." Later in the show, the band left the stage except for Townshend. He performed a brilliant solo acoustic version of "Drowned" that left him in agony. Apparently, he got carried away and started slamming his hand into the guitar doing the flamenco style strumming, and exacerbated an old injury in his right hand. He explained the situation as he rolled up his sleeve massaging his arm. He wanted us to know that if he had a sour look on his face that he wasn't angry, just hurt. As a blue light bathed the stage for (you guessed it) "Behind Blue Eyes," a guy in a tie-dye shirt a few rows away from me started blowing bubbles toward the stage. It only served to make the song somehow more intimate. "Pinball Wizard" followed to the delight of the crowd, and while the trademark guitar intro got to me, something seemed missing during the night's only concession to the album that made them legends. It really seemed that they were only doing it because they had to do it. Oh well, sparks started flying again during "The Real Me" and "5:15," which both heavily featured the prowess of Entwistle. Finally, his bass was loud enough, and the latter song culminated in an extended bass solo that was unique and pyrotechnic. He even threw in some two-handed tapping techniques that could make Billy Sheehan seem gutless by comparison. The main set ended heavy on hits. "You Better You Bet" was solid and set-closer "Won't Get Fooled Again" came fast and furious.
There was a screw up during the last song that almost drained the energy from it, but by the time we met "the new boss," it all made sense again. Surprisingly, the encores were a little subdued. It was nice to hear "The Kids Are Alright" as Roger strummed along on acoustic guitar, but "Let's See Action" was a victim of bad pacing. It could have worked perfectly earlier, but detracted a bit from the "grand finale" here. Even worse, "My Generation" ended the show with a whimper. After the famous bass solo, they started into a jam which had me thinking they were going to recreate the amazing Live At Leeds version of the song that incorporated some choice moments from Tommy and culminated in the "See Me, Feel Me" part of "We're Not Gonna Take It." Alas it was not to be. The jam just kind of wandered into a lame, dragging place that it could never find it's way out of. "Love Reign O'er Me," "I Can See For Miles," "Magic Bus," or even "The Seeker" would have been more effective, but I guess they felt they had to do what is, in my opinion, the first punk song. If it had that energy, maybe, but it didn't tonight.
Overall, this concert was a smashing reminder of just who the men of The Who were and are, although no guitars were smashed in the process. There were unscripted moments and revelatory surprises in the songs; it was not the rock and roll Broadway of the last few tours.