Last Sunday The Who in their 2022 composition performed in Cincinnati, the US city where the burden of expectation is intensified by the events of 1979. This review of the show was sent to me by Glenn Burris, one of many Who fans who connected with me via Facebook and this blog which, over the years, has featured more about The Who than any other rock act. I’m more than happy to post it here on Glenn’s behalf. 

You’d be hard pressed to argue that any major concert in Cincinnati was ever more keenly anticipated than The Who’s show there this past Sunday night. Over the years, there might have been as much build up among rock fans for stadium shows in the city by The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney or even some guy in a cowboy hat, but this was clearly a different situation. Of course, this would be The Who’s first appearance in the Queen City since the infamous tragedy of December 3, 1979, so both local and national media brought extra attention. This ensured the show would be a true event, not just a Sunday night concert. 

        Circumstances, too, combined to up the ante. The tour stop was originally set for April 2020, the month that showed the world that a pandemic is not a two-week Netflix binge. The following two years saw the construction of soccer-dedicated TQL Stadium, which was chosen as the new venue for this show over the original indoor site in neighboring Kentucky. Now The Who would play in Cincy proper, outdoors, in a burgeoning and elated neighborhood, and in a facility that did not exist two years prior, hosting its first-ever music performance. Mix that with the warm mid-spring weather and the relaxed Covid threat, plus a promise by The Who to give every away every net nickel of their appearance, and it seemed like all hopes for this night might be realized. By and large, they were. 

        For their ticket money, the crowd was given an elegant formula for rock and roll joy and a community-binding experience. But one person seemed to leave the stadium with a pale aura of bitterness and frustration about him. One man walked away looking weary. And he was the auteur for the entire thing, the genesis figure of both the 1979 and 2022 concerts. Pete Townshend left the stage Sunday looking not relieved, nor released. He just looked bruised. The day’s work he had just completed seemed to end with a sour taste, more of a dry thud than a celebratory firework despite the good vibes that seemed to fill the air right next to him. Pete’s complexities, his fraught relationship with Roger Daltrey and with touring (again and again and again) pitted against his love of his own music, were put in a new light by the tenor of the evening. And come the curfew time, he looked like he’d had enough. 

        The two-hour-plus show that preceded what appeared to be a moment of dismay was textbook 21st Century Who. Give that phrase a moment to settle in if you can. This late-model concert, like that of most artists in their class these days, is designed to satisfy the patron that sees The Who one time in their lives. Very little is left to chance in either performance (especially with a platoon of orchestral musicians parked behind a rock band) or the set list. Only one song was gleaned from their most recent album, and it elicited only polite response from the throng. As a matter of fact, you’d be forgiven for imagining a promoter contracting the band to stick a new song right in the middle of the set, so they are sure to sell more beer at that time. 

        Who ’22 looks like just like Who ’19, no matter the silly re-branding of an identically formatted tour as ‘The Who Hits Back’ (At what, you are welcome to ask). There are a few more wrinkles, sure, but other than that, it’s a sequel with a script identical to its precedent, sold to a marketplace with no ceiling on price and who don’t ask for much more than background music for a night out. As always seems the case now, the sound of music is cluttered with the noise of conversations all around you, almost all the time. 

        Still, there is a reason to set aside the cynicism and give our loyalty to The Who room to breathe. There is something impressive and encouraging about the feat of playing big loud music at the ages Roger and Pete have reached. In his recent Audible podcast, Townshend ruminated on the notion of near-80-year-olds presenting this kind of music while at least appearing to have a bang-up time doing it. He correctly stated that this deserves to be seen as a life-affirmation, and asked, “Is this not a celebration of what being alive is?” It was a relief to hear him pose the rhetorical question, even if he added the caveat that he really isn’t enjoying himself on the road. He has said that for years.

        The par-for-the-course Cincinnati concert should certainly get credit for properly pairing the memorial to the eleven who died in 1979 with a professional “Rock and Rollllllll!” concert, which must be no easy task – has any rock band faced this situation before? The names of those lost in the crush were on display all night long as part of the stadium’s electronic bannering system, where you would expect to see the names of car dealers and the crypto currency of the week. Keeping the scroll on these displays at the periphery and not behind the stage did indeed give you the feeling that the spirits of the victims of 42 years past – lives lost as much through the gross behavior of their fellow concertgoers as to the arena’s management – were floating among the living. Other mentions of the missing by Pete and Roger themselves were more than gracious as each walked a tight wire between tribute and entertainment. A video message from Eddie Vedder, who had hoped to make a cameo at this show, was shown before the headliners walked on, but went mostly unnoticed in the chattering of the crowd. 

        The opening act slot was given to a good local band called Safe Passage. Its members were among the survivors of the ’79 calamity. Whoever gave them the gig really deserves a hand. A montage of photos of those who never came home on that cold December night was presented over the piano intro to ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, and for ‘Baba O’Riley’, local high school orchestral musicians and singers, with connections to the fine P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund, were given the thrill of an on-stage appearance. You couldn’t help but smile at their glowing young faces. All of this was memorable, well-timed, and evenly balanced. It never felt sticky, it was served in just the right amount. 

        But then such a staged remembrance fits well with a boilerplate performance. One or two choices did veer from the norm: for the hardcore, ‘Relay’ made a welcome band-only appearance, and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ erupted in a mid-set electric version where we usually get it in acoustic duo mode, before the orchestra returned for the third act of the show. 

        The most exciting moment, though, came in the form that it usually does, with an instance of crash-but-not-burn. Just like in a Formula One race when one car scrapes another and then lurches forward to win the next curve, a Townshend brain skip in ‘Eminence Front’ caused him to momentarily forget a verse then rush-read the line to get back on schedule. Experienced Who fans relish these gaffs, because a moment later, without fail, the band will try to make up for them in aggressive fashion. In this case, Pete next unleashed his hottest burst of electric guitar all night. That was not good enough to make up for the fact that the sound of his Stratocaster was consistently buried in a murky mix (so much so that the orchestra could have stayed home for all the good they did). 

        Cincinnati’s new stadium was made for soccer before music and local laws apparently conspired with the venue’s design to, song by song, erode The Who’s literally-carefully-orchestrated performance. Empty metal seating at the end opposite the stage was said, by Pete, to be unavailable for sale simply because that area is not made up of true seats but long benches where people might crowd together. In other words, there is still a legislated local fear of “another Cincinnati”. So, the band played to a giant steel reflector, and it was one of the unwanted ingredients of a concert that never really peaked and included a moment of real buzz kill only at the close of the night. 

        In the final part of the show, as rock- and classically- trained musicians lumbered through a stack of Quadrophenia selections, the giant monitors revealed a Townshend that looked more haggard by the minute. You got the feeling that the complex emotion of the show was manifesting as fatigue and frustration. Up there was the Pete that thinks too much, trying just to get through the work plan. But he kept his cool, playing well enough through his most complicated music, Quad’s instrumental penultimate ‘The Rock’, strategically placed to rest Daltrey’s voice for the last furlong. And Pete made yet another grateful announcement as he welcomed the local kids on to play and sing his phrase-coiner about the “teenage wasteland” turned cop show theme. ‘Baba O’Riley’ is now a flag raised not by Pete or Roger but by the pretty young violinist who dervishes through a perfect reading of Dave Arbus’s Who’s Next solo center stage. But let’s give the 1971 warhorse its due here. The line “Let’s get together before we get much older” likely resounded stronger with this age 60-plus crowd, in place of those not there, than it might at other Who concerts.

        On the back side of that show closer, Roger stepped up to offer his usual benediction. This time it would come with the added component of the gravity of the occasion. But he wandered off script and began to complain about the bounce-back sound he dealt with all evening thanks to the rows of empty metal bleachers. Now, Daltrey is a great philanthropist, and not careless when it comes to charitable and meaningful events. He had an end game in mind, eventually saying that while he suffered from hearing ‘another band’ playing in echo to him all night, at least that band “was better than the one on stage”. But Pete wasn’t in on the joke, and just before Rog could reach the punchline, changing complaint to comedy, Townshend rushed to interrupt his singer, with a look of “What the hell are you doing?!” on his face. It echoed another comment from Pete’s Audible show where he recalled wincing at Roger’s opening remarks in Buffalo, New York, on December 4, 1979, a show that Pete now says The Who should never have played. 

        Local photographer Jon Calderas perfectly captured the moment, a classic on-stage Who misunderstanding, and it can be seen among the many photos from Sunday night at Cincymusic.com: Pete motioning to the off-stage area and apparently trying to tell Roger that it was time to end this monologue. When Roger continued mopping up, Pete hot-footed it for stage left, only to be coaxed back by Daltrey who was awkwardly working toward a conclusion in a long list of thank-yous. 

        Seeing Pete lose a little patience with Roger in public (or vice-versa) is nothing new. It’s one of the charms of Grumpy Old Men. But on Sunday night, beneath the graceful appreciation of lives lived and lost, their physical aches and the strains of their relationship seemed burdened by the cold pains of forty years past. And all of it framed by an elusive terminus for a rock career: a show that never quite stops. For Townshend, it must feel like being on treadmill, while reminding yourself that it’s better to be up on this thing than prone on the floor next to it. When Pete did finally amble off stage with the rest of the gang, nothing in his body language said he reached ‘closure’, a cliché that so many articles this week have used. He just looked like he was stuck in his own past. Again. 

        Cincinnati was longing for The Who’s return, and the duo manned up, no doubt. Roger and Pete are gamers, and they have big hearts. They, and Bill Curbishley and the rest of the management team and the supporting musicians, deserve any blessing this visit to Cincinnati could offer. But you must wonder if at least one of The Two left town this time feeling any less beaten than he had in 1979. 

- Glenn Burris, May 18, 2022, glenn_burris@earthlink.net

Glenn is a corporate communications producer and documentary filmmaker who lives in northern Ohio. A life-long Who fan, the December 3, 1979, was on his fifteenth birthday. Glenn didn’t make it to Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum that night, but has seen The Who dozens of times over the last 40 years. 


Colin Harper said...

Fascinating. I do wonder why and how the choice was made to tour with an orchestral show. As a fan, I would choose not to go if it was in my town - I like orchestras, I like the Who, but the logistics of both playing together (timing wise and volume wise) would only, for me, diminish what the Who are/were about. One hopes for excitement and a bit of spontaneity at a Who show. That was in limited supply a few years ago on the Who Hits 50 tour, with more or less 16 bars in each song where Pete's guitar noticeably went up in in volume and he did his thing... before everything locked back into their Musical Director's careful template. From what I've seen on YouTube clips, even those moments are rare on this tour. I'm sorry to hear, Glenn, that Pete's apparently enjoying it all even less than usual. I understand that he wants to maximise income for his dependents, and that's a noble cause; but if audiences are feeling sour vibes, that will affect people's willingness to keep returning.

Glenn Burris said...

Colin says: "but if audiences are feeling sour vibes, that will affect people's willingness to keep returning."

Yeah you would think so, right? But I don't know if that's the case.

When I go to shows of this size now (and that ain't often), I don't get the impression that most people are evaluating what they are hearing and seeing at all. They just want to hear some hit songs, dance around a bit, talk to their friends and pay, as Zappa said, "Entirely too much for their beer." Oh, and text about it, take a picture of it, and make a movie of it, and put it all on Facebook. What's an experience of any kind if I can't use it to impress somebody else, right?

As long as the audience can gratify themselves, why should they care how the band feels, looks, or sounds? Pay the most, be happy with the least, get the t-shirt. Hey, that would be a good name for a live album.