The Who’s greatest stage asset was an uncanny ability to create a sort of controlled chaos that invariably led to a fascinating, occasionally heart-stopping, element of uncertainly. To catch them on a roll was for rock heaven to descend. So it was for me during parts of this show at Birmingham NIA last night; heaven descended when they whipped into ‘Substitute’, the second song of the night, floated through a sublime ‘Kids Are Alright’, now a Mod anthem, offered up a spectacular ‘I Can See For Miles’, just about made it through ‘So Sad About Us’, gave us ‘A Quick One’ in all its ungainly glory and spliced a devastating ‘Sparks’ into the Tommy medley towards the end. Others in this sell-out crowd of 12,000+ probably went for the more obvious moments, especially the homage to the fallen, the teenage wasteland roar and meeting the new boss, but I’ve always looked for surprises in my Who, and I was grateful – and not a little startled – that I’d found it again.
It was an unashamedly nostalgic show from the opening riff of ‘I Can’t Explain’ to the dying embers of ‘Magic Bus’ two hours and 20 minutes later. Pete Townshend often claims to be allergic to nostalgia while Roger Daltrey wraps it around him like a warm blanket, but whatever their individual feelings about powering through their greatest songs yet again the 2014/15 edition of The Who puts to the sword any ideas that these two surviving members from the classic line-up are merely coasting on what seems likely to be their final UK tour. It is not, and never has been, in their nature to smooth out the edges, and although this was a sentimental journey there were times when it was pretty amazing too; perhaps not quite as amazing as when they and their former colleagues John Entwistle and Keith Moon explored the outer limits of live rock, but this was a show that brought the past shuddering back to life, an echo of yesterday fast-forwarded to today, a celebration of their glorious legacy that for someone like me, seeing The Who for the 36th time, was often profoundly moving.
Of course, the vast majority of those 35 other shows featured John and Keith, and I think they would have been quietly satisfied that to make up for their absence a further six musicians are now required on stage. This fact, more than anything else, seemed to me to underline why this show should not be weighed against former glories. There is a school of thought that believes groups of this vintage, intact or otherwise, should pack up their guitars and amps and call it a day, that Daltrey and Townshend have no right to continue as The Who, that this Who is simply a tribute act to the old one. Well, so fucking what – it doesn’t matter. One look at the joy on the faces of the NIA crowd, many of them too young to have seen the classic group, puts those arguments to the sword too.
The show wasn’t flawless. The Who never were – and this was one of their greatest virtues. Although the enlarged group enforces a fairly rigorous attention to pre-rehearsed details, Townshend was never a guitarist who played the same every night and he still doesn’t. Daltrey is used to being buffeted along by the whims of his partner and takes it in good stride. The overall sound from the stage was fantastic, as clear and powerful as I have ever heard from this or any other group; three long suspended columns of speakers at either side of the stage delivering the music to state-of-the-art perfection. The non-stop visuals, too, were as good as it gets, whether it be zap-pow footage recreated from stills of the old band to anything and everything that reflects the target-cum-arrow-cum-red-white-and-blue Who imagery we’ve known for so long. Screens at either side of the stage offer wonderfully clear live close-ups, mostly of Roger and Pete with Zak Starkey a distant third, and at one point, as the Quadrophenia segment ebbed away and the scooters headed for home, the four faces of the old Who, circa 1965, were superimposed on what I suspect were the white cliffs east of Brighton. Perfect.
The Quadrophenia section, as it has in the past, featured synchronised contributions from John – the bass solo in ‘5.15’, which seems to grow in stature with age – and Keith – singing ‘Bell Boy’ – still clumsy and lovable in a badly behaved puppy-dog sort of way. This isn’t new, of course, but it still upped the emotional level of the show, and I was especially moved to see Roger, his back to the audience, saluting Keith at the end of ‘Bell Boy’. No other group has ever been as caught up in its own past as much as The Who, so this tribute section is a simple act of continuity for them, just like the hint of ‘My Generation’ that slips into ‘The Punk And The Godfather’ – two songs they didn’t play, by the way.
What they did play was a ‘greatest hits plus’ set, and it would be remiss of me not to list them, in order then: ‘I Can’t Explain’, ’Substitute’, ‘The Seeker’, ‘Who Are You’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘I Can See For Miles’, ‘Pictures Of Lily’, ‘So Sad About Us’ (a first, slightly hesitant, evidently worked up during the afternoon’s sound check), ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ (Roger outstanding), ‘You Better You Bet’, ‘Join Together’, ‘I’m One’, ‘5.15’ (Zak Starkey accompanying John’s solo was staggering), ‘Bell Boy’, ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ (another outstanding performance from Roger), ‘Eminence Front’ (which Pete brought to a rather sharp close after a spiky solo), ‘A Quick One’ (with a nod to the Rock And Roll Circus version and John’s falsetto), ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘Sparks’ (Pete raising the game to a ridiculous level, as noted), ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘See Me Feel Me/Listening To You’ (this Tommy medley was negotiated non-stop, each song seguing smoothly into the next), ‘Baba O’Riley’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Magic Bus’.
The Who now use three keyboard players, two of whom sing, with Simon Townshend on second guitar and vocals, so what with Pete singing as well Roger now leads a choir of five. Session ace Pino Palladino is retained on bass but I felt he could have been slightly louder. Pino maintains a lower profile than even his predecessor, an almost invisible presence behind Simon. In John’s day the bass was a crucial element of the overall sound but it has now been relegated to a secondary rhythm instrument as it is in every other band with more than three instrumentalists. Since Zak Starkey is a powerhouse on drums, in the same class as Moon now, the role of the bass is the key difference between The Who of old and The Who of today, and I really do miss that unique mid-range bass harmonic that John brought to the group's sound.
Roger plays guitar on many songs nowadays, either a Gibson Jumbo or a Telecaster, but you can’t really hear him. His voice, however, seems to get better with age. It’s a bit deeper than it once was but is still an enormously powerful instrument. It seemed to me he was easing off a bit during the final half-hour, perhaps a wise move with six more shows still to play until this leg of the tour ends on December 18. He still chucks the microphone around and frets that he can’t hear himself in his ear piece, but he shouldn’t. He sounds terrific, and moves around with the energy of a teenager.
As for the guitarist and principal songwriter, well, there’s still a touch of the Mr Grumpy about him but he still windmills spectacularly when the mood takes him, though the leaping about is largely a thing of the past, and his choice of trouser – grey elasticated waistband sweatpants – seemed not to befit the occasion. On the plus side Pete still plays like a man possessed, superbly too, mostly with his fingers like Jeff Beck now, on red or white Strats, often with capos on the neck. I'm pretty sure the band are never 100% certain what he'll play next when he’s soloing but then again nobody ever was, and that air of uncertainty adds enormously to the show. Behind him are about half a dozen tube-like baffles of various sizes, presumably placed strategically so as to reduce the higher-pitched frequencies from his guitar amp, thus easing the strain on his hearing. He is still far from cuddly and quite funny in his cranky way; still bemoaning the fact that ‘Miles’ wasn’t the hit it deserved to be and that ‘Boris The Spider’ and ‘Magic Bus’ have always been the songs most requested by fans, one of which he didn’t write and the other a Bo Diddley pastiche. I thought for a moment they were going to have a crack at ‘Boris’ just before ‘Magic Bus’ but it wasn’t to be. Sensibly, after a towering ‘Fooled Again’, with staggering climactic drums from Zak, Roger declared that instead of leaving the stage for five minutes and coming back again, they would play the encore, ‘Magic Bus’, now. Pete grinned and said something about it being their silliest song, shouldered arms and went into the Diddley beat, much to everyone's delight.
I have had a long and for the most part immensely satisfying love affair with The Who, and it might well be that this affair is finally coming to an end, at least as far as live shows go. Strangely enough, the first time I saw the group without Keith on drums was also in Birmingham, in March 1981. I’d felt disconnected from The Who after Keith died and didn’t go to any shows in 1979 or ’80, but my girlfriend at the time, name of Jenny, really wanted to see them so we drove up to Birmingham for that show at the NEC. Afterwards Jenny told me she thought they were the greatest band in the world, and I remember thinking… if only, if only. Last night in Birmingham, back at our hotel, a bottle of red newly opened as I looked over my scribbled notes, Lisa told me how much she’d enjoyed the show, far more than she actually thought she would. If only, I thought, if only…