The Who Hits 50!
With Special Guests Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
American Airlines Arena
April 17, 2015
Better than: Most bands of a similar stature (hey, this is The Who, after all!)
First things first: Despite the hype and hoopla surrounding the fact that one of rock’s quintessential bands has now hit the half-century mark — joining the Beatles and the Stones in the process — Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and company haven’t been reticent about hitting the road for a so-called retirement tour on more than a few occasions.
There was a farewell tour in the '80s, and the band has regrouped on many occasions since, either to replay Tommy or Quadrophenia in their entirety, to take center stage at the Super Bowl and the Olympics, or simply to shine a light on former glories. Granted, 50 years in the music industry is reason enough to take to the road to tout their triumphs, but in many ways, this was no different from any of their other victory laps in recent years, billboards and ballyhoo aside.
That said, any opportunity to see the surviving members of what is arguably the greatest band in the annals of rock — and yes, we’d put them up against the Beatles and the Stones in that regard — is an occasion for celebration. True, the Stones will hit the road again this year, and Paul, Ringo, and Dylan may still be a constant presence on the tour circuit. But there’s nothing like seeing Townshend and Daltrey side by side in full flight, with the strength of their classic anthems surging forward and shining resplendent once again.
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True, though, the days with Keith Moon and John Entwistle powering that mighty rhythm are long gone, and there’s nothing that can be done to re-create the flash and frenzy that was The Who in its prime. Sadly, you had to be there to understand. However, there’s also no denying that The Who we know today makes a valiant attempt. And with drummer Zak Starkey taking on Moon's role, Townshend’s brother Simon adding extra heft on guitar, Pino Palladino filling Entwistle’s unassuming place on bass, Loren Gold and John Corey sharing the keyboards, and musical director Frank Simes handling practically everything in between, they effectively replayed nearly two dozen songs that rank among the greatest rock has ever offered at the American Airlines Arena show.
Joan Jett, who at the age of 56 still looks identical to her younger self, kicked off the proceedings with her longtime backing band the Blackhearts, offering a veritable greatest-hits package of her own. Their sound remains very much of the proto-punk variety — the type that both inspired and frightened Townshend in the late '70s when bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols threatened to upstage and usurp The Who’s standing as rock’s angriest young men.
These days, Jett and crew still seem intent on raising a middle finger, if not at their hosts, at least toward anyone in the audience who dismisses them as has-beens. With a lead guitarist who still sports a Mohawk and all the band members fully tattooed, the overall nostalgia of this occasion is effectively reinforced. The songs were familiar to most in the crowd — “Cherry Bomb,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “You Drive Me Wild” (billed as the first song she ever wrote), and one of rock’s most singular theme songs, “I Love Rock and Roll.” Jett even dared to toss in a new tune, one called “Fragile,” offering something The Who deigned to do. Indeed, if attitude and insurgence count for anything at all — and yes, they do — Jett could go blow for blow with her headliners.
Regardless, there’s nothing like The Who in determined delivery mode, and yet again, the band did not disappoint. Kicking off with its traditional set opener “Can’t Explain,” the band launched into a superb set list that touched on practically every phase of the band's career, from early triumphs like “My Generation,” "Substitute,” “Magic Bus,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and “I Can See for Miles” to final glories like “It’s Hard” and “Eminence Front,” which, as Townshend noted, has its own Miami connection having figured prominently in the soundtrack for Miami Vice.
Townshend also pointed out that “The Seeker,” the third song of the set, was written “in a swamp in Florida.” Although this Miami gig marked only The Who's second show of the current leg of the tour — following its opening in Tampa — he was clearly pleased to be back. “It’s great to be in Florida,” Townshend quipped. “You can keep California. You have it all here.”
From that point on, there was no end to the musical plateaus, given that the band extracted heavy portions of Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Who’s Next to feature throughout. Even the Who’s seminal mini opera, “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” — which predated Tommy by at least a year — got a full run through, even though Townshend, in typical rebellious mode, was prone to say, “I fucking hate this.”
Naturally, though, the most fervent crowd reaction went to songs like “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Baba O’Riley,” tracks that have become an indelible part of pop culture thanks to placement on television. Even so, early on in the show, it became virtually impossible to distinguish any individual highlight because each performance became a magnificent moment in itself. Even the lack of an encore and a relatively modest two-hour, 22-song set did nothing to dispel the crowd’s enthusiasm, with more than one audience member overheard saying it was the greatest concert he had ever seen.
Indeed, that’s a rightful assessment, although this reviewer would have to reserve that judgement for The Who’s appearance in Forest Hills, New York, in the summer of 1971, after the release of Who’s Next. And with an accompanying backdrop featuring stills and video of The Who in its prime, comparison to the acrobatic act of old only served to remind all in attendance that as the bandmates approach their 70s ("I’m 69 and still alive!” Townshend declared defiantly), they’re no longer the showmen they once were. While Townshend made a point of exercising his trademark windmills and Daltrey attempted a few whirls of his microphone cord, there were no random acts of acrobatics that were once a memorable mainstay of the quartet’s live performances.
These days, they go about their business with workmanlike precision, with 40-year-old Zak Starkey and his able replication of Moon’s trademark frenzy offering the only real hint of that once-youthful dynamic. After all, realities of aging can't be denied. Nevertheless, when Townshend promised a show drawn from their early, middle, and, now, the end of their career, the crowd couldn’t help but hiss at the finality of this being The Who's final go-round. With older contemporaries still going strong, there’s no reason to call it quits now.
As evidenced by the performance that unfolded Friday night, any hint that this tour marks The Who's end is clearly exaggerated. I for one will still be there when The Who hits 60.
The crowd: Revved up and enthusiastic. No surprise there.
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Personal bias: My hat goes off — even though his never does — to my buddy Frank Simes, who assumes what may be the most intimidating role a musical director could ever undertake: steering the arrangements of and do justice to these eternal anthems. Although he stays in the shadows throughout the show, Simes’ handiwork was apparent from the first to last note.
By the way: The Who has a disaster-prone history of South Florida appearances. In the mid-'70s, when the original quartet appeared at the old Miami Baseball Stadium (the forebear of today’s controversy-stung Marlins Park), Moon overdosed on horse tranquilizers or some equally stupid concoction and had to spend several days recovering in a Miami hospital. During their last time in South Florida, at Broward's BB&T Center, Townshend stormed offstage prior to the final song while complaining of an ineffectual sound system. Fortunately, there were no such mishaps this time, or at least none that were apparent.
Who Are You
I Can See for Miles
The Kids Are Alright
Pictures of Lily
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O'er Me
A Quick One (While He's Away)
See Me, Feel Me
Won't Get Fooled Again