Roger Daltrey, with Paul Freeman |
at the XL Center,
Hartford, CT (24 September 2011)
I begin with a few confessions. I never saw The Who or any of its members perform in person before, even though I had heard marvelous reports about them from several friends and acquaintances. I never bought any Who records when I was younger, even though I liked the music. I got a The Who's Greatest Hits cassette only many years later, in order to at least have the best selections handy. I never made a commitment to become a true Who fan.
This time around however, I felt obligated to find Roger Daltrey on tour. After all, he was set to perform the entire Tommy soundtrack, "along with other Who classics." Since the famous rock opera production was released the same year I graduated from high school (1975; though the original album came out in 1969), this concert would include some of the most historic music of my generation. The only trouble was: I'd never seen the movie. I was barely familiar with the basic plot and I knew only its most popular songs. I had some catching up to do.
So in order to prepare for the concert, I listened to a Tommy CD while I drove to work. I borrowed a library copy of the video and finally watched it for the first time. Yes, it is dark; and yes, it illustrates just about every social ill known to humankind. And since this masterpiece from composer Pete Townshend questions both the relevance of religion and the gaining of sudden fame, I marveled at its parallels with Ray Bradbury's science-fiction book, Stranger in a Strange Land.
Otherwise, it was fun to see a young Ann-Margret appearing as Roger/Tommy's mother, to see Roger/Tommy playing pinball in that slim turquoise suit and to witness the context that the major songs fit into. I was glad to finally have a reason to see Tommy. I probably will never need to see it again, however.
In the Hartford arena on this night, the stage had been pushed forward so the musicians would be playing to only about half of the house.
Daltrey had already taken this same show to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Was Hartford not a sell-out, as a result? Or was this a deliberate down-sizing? Why weren't more people here? I thought this was a not-to-be-missed evening of classic rock. I guessed I would be one of the few thousands of the lucky locals to see it.
Solo guitarist Paul Freeman was the energetic opening act. This young and talented performer was originally from Wales, and his tones echoed throughout the hall, bouncing off many still-empty seats. His set included a mix of original tunes and covers: "Last Man Standing," "Against the Ropes," "Tightrope," the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care," "Long Way to the City" and "That's How It Is." Freeman had enough bounce and personality to command strict attention for more than his allotted 25 minutes, if given different circumstances. He even invited a young woman named Emily to come up from the audience and accompany him on "Long Way to the City." But he understood his role as warm-up for the main attraction, and he did not overstay his assignment. Fortunately, people continued to fill up our end of the arena during the 15-minute break that followed Freeman's final chord.
Naturally, Roger Daltrey and his five bandmates took the stage to a standing ovation. At 67, Roger still bears facial resemblance to that young man who played the "deaf, dumb and blind kid" 36 years ago. He is still in fine voice. The once blonde-brown and wildly curly locks have turned into tighter and shorter gray curls. (In fact, from my stage-side seat, where I could glimpse his prominent nose in silhouette, I thought at times that he oddly favored Tony Bennett.) And alas, no turquoise suit brightened up the scene. Roger instead wore an unassuming dark tunic with dark pants and wire-rimmed glasses, too.
Tonight he was accompanied by Frank Simes on rhythm guitar, bass guitarist Jon Button, drummer Scott Devours and Loren Gold on keyboards. At Daltrey's right hand was Simon Townshend, younger brother of Pete, standing in and playing mostly a mean lead on acoustic guitar. (Pete's auditory troubles now prevent him from participating in public performances.) The group wasted no time and launched right into the "Overture" from Tommy.
The receptive crowd was mesmerized as the selections seamlessly followed the rock-opera sequence, known by heart by many. The music was augmented by simple artsy background graphics. Those who may have expected to see key film clips had to imagine them instead. The music was the spotlight.
In the absence of the additional movie performers, it was up to Roger and fellow frontman Simon to cover all of the various vocals. In addition to his Tommy verses, Roger did the ones for Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) as well. Simon sang the roles of the Acid Queen (Tina Turner) and other minor characters. Sometimes the duo was called upon to do some musical dueling.
But it was Simon's acoustic guitar and the familiar fast-strumming intro to "Pinball Wizard" that brought the audience to its feet. Soon everyone in the place was singing/shouting the lyrics along with Roger and fist-punching the air with each syllable of "sure plays mean pinball."
Other musical high points came with "I'm Free" and the sing-along conclusion to the rock opera, "We're Not Gonna Take It." We roared with approval when the hour-plus retrospective came to an end. And yet, it was really just a smorgasbord appetizer for more to come.
Now the band offered the "other Who classics," and Roger was able to chat between songs. He played the guitar himself on "I Can See for Miles," while Steve Devours dove into the signature ratcheting percussion line of the chorus. As the arena air suddenly became a bit aromatic, Roger asked the crowd not to light up any more, since the smoke now affected his throat and singing ability. How time can change things, eh? The music continued with "Pictures of Lily," "Days of Light" and "Freedom Ride," a Taj Mahal cover. Simon sang "Going Mobile," while Roger provided harmonica background. It was followed by "Tattoo."
A stellar version of "Who Are You" won over the crowd yet again. We were treated to a snippet of a blues approach to "My Generation," which segued into "Young Man Blues." Then it was time to sing along loudly with "Baba O'Riley," known informally to most folks as "Teenage Wasteland." Never mind that it had been decades since the majority of the audience had seen their teenage years. But some of their kids were on also hand to live up to the lyrics. "Let's get together / Before we get much older," might mean something slightly different to us now. What a way to end a concert!
Of course, another standing ovation was in order.
The ballad "Without Your Love" was offered as an encore. Then Roger donned a ukulele to send us home with "Blue, Red & Grey" from The Who by Numbers. Roger and the guys left the stage to well-deserved resounding cheers and applause.
Yes, I was very glad to have the chance to see Roger Daltrey and Simon Townshend perform Tommy and the rest of the repertoire. The concert lived up to its expectations, and it was a historical moment for me. I still can't quite fathom why the venue was divided in half for a smaller audience, but maybe that was the trend of the tour.
In reflection, the set list might have taken an ironic turn if the song "Substitute" had been included. But Simon was standing in for his brother Pete; he was no substitute, and a fine line of distinction could be drawn there. He too is a talented guitarist and performer, and he did a magnificent job. From now on, whenever I hear the beginning of "Pinball Wizard," I'll think of that moment in Hartford when I saw Simon Townshend leaning into his guitar, much to the glee and fist-pumping of the audience, as Roger Daltrey led us in singing that familiar lyric from the past. What more can anyone ask of a tremendous concert experience?
by Corinne H. Smith