On January 30th, the Who returned to Los Angeles filling the Staples Center to the rafters for the Quadrophenia tour. Approaching their fiftieth anniversary,the legendary band performed the 1973 concept album in its entirety, as well as a handful of their greatest hits.
Joining guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey for this swing through the states was most of the same touring band that have been on the road with them for about a decade, including drummer Zak Starkey, bassist Pino Palladino, and Townshend’s younger brother Simon on rhythm guitar, mandolin and vocals (on “Dirty Jobs”). A pair of keyboardists (John Corey, Loren Gold) replaced John “Rabbit” Bundrick on this run, and to bring out the grand sound heard on the “Quadrophenia” album, the band employed a two-piece horn section (J. Greg Miller, Reggie Grisham).
From the pummeling bash-and-groove of “The Real Me” to the dramatic conclusion of “Love Reign O’er Me,”the performance was surreal, vibrant, and fantastic. Bright lights dazzled and big screen images complimented the musical storytelling. The hypnotic sound of crashing waves crept in and out between songs, connecting them all as one as Daltrey and Townshend took no chat breaks. Aside from some typical arena/big room echo that occasionally made the vocals hard to understand and muddled some of the music, it was a smooth production. At the end of the night, Townshend said he played “a few bum notes,” but if he did, they were hard to catch.
The pair of redemption anthems, “I’m One” and “Drowned,”beamed with radiant uplift, while darkness was met with despair in “Punk and the Godfather.” The dance between snarling anger and crippling depression was masterfully captured with “I’ve Had Enough.” It’s the dramatic and passionate delivery of these songs, and the insight that can be found in them, that plays a major role in making one a believer in Townshend’s subject matter.
Townshend’s fretwork is still fierce and inspiring too. Looking around the arena, one could see dozens of fans playing air guitar, raising a fist of excitement up to the sky, or saying “Holy fuck” when his savage riff-ripping or fierce and fluid solos let loose and took off. Daltrey’s tough and from-the-gut vocals have regained much of their range since having surgery two years ago, and if he couldn’t pull off certain notes, he found a way to work around it. Both men stepped into character with their rock and roll theatrics; a few dozen windmills and scissor-kicks came from Townshend, while Daltrey swung his microphone in circles and was performing with an un-buttoned shirt halfway through the show, just like the old days.
And while there is no way to bring back Keith Moon and Entwistle, the two deceased original members made cameos on the big screen, with Moon resuming his cartoonish vocal duties on “Bell Boy” and Entwhistle knocking everybody on their asses with a jaw-dropping solo on “5:15.” This footage, as well as archival video clips of the entire original band from their heyday in the sixties and seventies, stirred up sentimentality throughout the entire evening.
The tale of Jimmy and his teenage dilemmas may take place in 1960’s England, but this is only the setting to a story with themes that transcend time and is far more universal. Jimmy’s struggles to make sense of his world are part of everyday life for all of us; no matter how old we are, what times we are living in, or where we may be. Much like Roger Waters has done with his recent production of “The Wall,” the Who have put a more worldly spin on the themes found in “Quadrophenia.” During the instrumental “The Rock,” seventy or so years worth of images beamed overhead on the big screens, reflecting images of discontentment and disillusionment; 1950s Post-War conformity, Nelson Mandela and his fight against Apartheid, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the death of John Lennon, the 9/11 attacks and Occupy Wall Street. All of this intense footage led right into the epic performance-closing plea for salvation, “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
The band followed this ambitious spectacle with an extended encore, mostly made up of songs that have been forever immortalized on classic rock radio stations around the country. If taking in all of “Quadrophenia” was too much for the fair-weather fans that only wanted hits, the encore was sure to please them. There was “Who Are You?” and ”Pinball Wizard,” along with “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” To bid the audience goodnight, they wrapped things up with “Tea and Theatre,” with Pete and Roger, the two remaining founding members, front and center.
When it comes to the Who, comparison to the past is inescapable, and that comparison always leaves fans to wonder what the band’s place is in the 21st century. There are many fans that feel the band should have hung things up with the death of John Entwistle in 2002. Some go back much further and think that they should have called it a day with the death of Keith Moon in 1978. Other fans beg to differ, because while it’s true that these two larger-than- life talents are inimitable, the band have found the best possible players to bounce back from such heavy blows, and we still have Pete and Roger out there, doing what they do best.