It can be daunting to write a review about a living legend, much less two. I’ve seen my fair share of them – Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed when he was still with us – the list goes on. But I’ve never used the written word to describe those experiences, because how can someone two generations behind this tremendous amount of talent critique it, especially when I wasn’t even around to hear them in their prime?
This Tuesday, I saw Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend perform at MGM National Harbor, and I decided to take the plunge and write about the show. The Who’s two remaining original members were joined by six musicians, the current lineup on the band’s 2017 North American tour, that included Townshend’s brother Simon on guitar and Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son and original Who drummer Keith Moon’s godson) on drums. And though the brand new 3,000-seat venue packed with fans seemed palatial to me, Daltrey and Townshend were quick to remind the audience during some witty banter that their last few shows were three times this size.
“What do you call it?” Townshend asked rhetorically. “A concert? I guess it’s a concert party.”
This was the first of many moments I had that felt surreal; that this packed theater felt intimate to them compared to the shows they normally play. But it all started to make sense as the set went on. The production value alone was off the charts, with visual content on a giant screen behind the guys that included everything from footage of the band over the years to psychedelic digital illustrations. There’s something to be said for no-frills shows, but the on-screen visuals complemented each song so well that they completely elevated the experience – not to mention some GoPro-style closeups on Starkey throughout the set.
And perhaps this comes as no surprise to someone who has seen The Who live before, but I was in awe of how amazing they sounded. They’re total pros, of course, but there was a polished quality to the set that was almost uncanny; seamless, effortless and nearly perfect. But what really gave me goosebumps was that as far as I could tell, Daltrey and Townshend have still got it – all of it. Daltrey nailed a scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that belonged to the pipes of someone half his age, and seeing Townshend’s incredible guitar technique in person was humbling.
The band weaved through their discography, from hits like “The Seeker” and their biggest hit single in the U.S., “I Can See for Miles,” (which they gave the audience a little shout out for, noting our country’s good taste) to a seriously rocking “My Generation” and harmonically beautiful “Behind Blue Eyes.” Some noteworthy moments included Townshend’s unreal guitar solo in “Bargain,” the overwhelmingly enthusiastic audience participation in “Join Together,” the sheer amount of talent and skill showcased in the instrumental “The Rock,” and Daltrey being a total bad ass and spitting (water, I think?) up into the air and over the audience in “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
Their last few songs included flawless, high-energy performances of “Pinball Wizard” and “Baba O’Riley,” which were of course bucket list items. But the best moments for me were the little stories told throughout, usually by Townshend, who had the charming quality of exuding both self-deprecation and rock ‘n’ roll legend-esque confidence all at once. In one tidbit, he asked if anyone had read his biography and joked about how few copies were sold. In another, he said his response when fans make requests is generally “F–k you.”
But my absolute favorite was the story he told us about taking “pep pills” in 1964 when working on My Generation, while there was also a cute girl in his flat.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had pep pills,” Townshend said. “But after you’ve had pep pills, you have what you call a downer. And I was playing with my model car kit on a downer and [the girl] said, ‘Would you like anything from me?’ – and she was gorgeous – and I said, ‘No, f–k off.’ So avoid pep pills.”
He wrote “The Kids Are Alright” about her, and knowing the backstory made hearing it live that much cooler. And now I definitely don’t want to take pep pills.
My takeaway from seeing The Who live? Rock ‘n’ roll can still be authentic and kick ass when it comes from the pros. I wouldn’t say it was a raw or rough or (in my mind, anyway) intimate show, but it was epic and grand and unforgettable. And even though I didn’t get to experience their music as new sounds when they first hit airwaves, I can still appreciate the enormity of what The Who contributed to rock music, and rock out with them from the other side of the stage.
Learn more about The Who and their current tour at www.thewho.com.