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WHO were they now?

June 24, 2015


Yes I was there in Dublin last night to see The Who.  So. Who and What are they?  Well, they are Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend.  They are assisted, discretely by Pete’s little brother Simon, the very tall and very gifted Pino Palladino  and on drums Zak Starkey.

(Ringo Starr was, of course, a good friend of Keith Moon, to the extent that Keith was “Uncle Keith” to Zak growing up. I suppose we’re all supposed to have  at least one disreputable uncle as a child – but there are disreputable uncles and disreputable uncles.  Zak Starkey must be about 50 himself now.  Where does the time go? Oh where?!)

It was to be a long evening.  Initially I was concerned by how slowly the venue was filling up and in my head I was doing this very lecturery thing about cursing the empty seats – berating the people who weren’t there – “the is only THE WHO for pity’s sake – where are you all for crying out loud!  And don’t be thinking that you can always catch them next time around” Foolish virgins!”

First up were The Last Internationale – a power trio from New York showcasing a well regarded solo album.  Their work and their performance style is thoroughly cognate with The Who and they jump around and torture guitars in a way that I didn’t think young people did any more.  I enjoyed them, but more than that – I was encouraged by them.  I felt they deserved a few more bums on seats in front of them if truth be told..

Then there was a further gap.   At this point I started to worry about catching the last train home.  Now that’s a poisonous thing to have to be thinking about when unalloyed excitement is the one and only emotion I should be entertaining.  I even started to look up Night Buses and other erratic and dangerous means of getting out of the city after 11.00pm.

Slowly the place started to fill up properly.  I relaxed a bit.  The idea of The Who playing to a half empty arena seemed too horrible to contemplate.  And suddenly they were there – strolling onto the stage.  Roger, whose eighth decade does not see any curbing of an instinct to display torso.  Pete looking a bit lumbering but very serious.  Other members of the band, interesting and talented as they were, were kept discreetly apart from the people we’d paid to see.

After an thrashy and concise rendering of “I Can’t Explain” and a far looser and shaggier version of “Who Are You” came “My Generation” – which was a revelation.  It was buoyant and unembarrassed and unapologetic and fun fun fun.  And then I realised that the reason why “My Generation” worked was the reason why the whole concert was going to work and why it did work.  “My Generation” is now far less awkward than it was thirty years ago.  Far better to hear this song in 2015 than in 1985.  Perhaps better yet to hear it in 1965, but you can’t have everything.  The truth is, they haven’t grown old, in the sense the song was talking about, and they have no time left to get old.  When a band hits their forties, an awkwardness about Rock and Roll pretension kicks in and the audience wonders if there isn’t something a little silly about guys still doing this kind of thing.  But when they hit their seventies, the idea of them ever doing anything else becomes even sillier.  In 1965, the song was a celebratory refusal to succumb to a bourgeois middle aged lifestyle.  In 1985, this commitment looked a bit dodgy.  But in 2015, all things considered, the song seems like a commitment honoured.  A promise kept.  Because at this stage, they’re hardly going to pack it all in and retrain as estate agents.

Perhaps youth and old age have this in common.  Urgency.  A sense that there’s limited time to say what you want to say and feel what you want to say.  Youth fears middle age that feels like death and old age fears death that really is death. Middle age, on the other hand, just gets lazy and stodgy.

This mood informed the rest of the set.  Pete and Roger are too old to be cynical.  These songs are important to them.  “Bargain”, one of their best performances last night, came with the preamble from Pete that he’s always been spiritually curious and Roger has always been doggedly atheist, making for a strange but evidently successful partnership.  Well, whatever else Roger is, he is (like many front men) an actor.   The performance of “See Me, Feel Me” (itself one of the most important pieces of twentieth century religious music of the twentieth century) was profoundly moving.  Roger’s commitment to the song (if not any Deity behind the song) was absolute – as it was absolute all night.  Perhaps best of all was “Love Reign O’er Me” (a song based on a very solemn reign/rain pun), for which Roger tortured his own voice as passionately as Pete ever tortured a guitar.

See here.  See, hear.

And Pete did continue to make guitars do remarkable things all evening.  He didn’t smash any, although Roger destroyed a couple of tambourines during “Sparks”.  Yes, Pete did his windmill thing all evening and Roger eschewed radio mikes in favour of something with a chord that he could twirl around and throw in the air and catch.

One of the few irritating things about last night, was constantly making way for people going back and forth to get beer during the show.  It wasn’t the personal inconvenience really – it was the sense that people had decided to spend their time going back and forth to the bar.  I wanted to shout “Do you not have beer where you live?  Is it some rare unobtainable delicacy? I think not.  I think you have lots of chances left to buy beer.  Whereas your opportunities to hear Pete and Roger perform “Baba O’Reilly” are, shall we say – finite.”)

The spirit was willing but sometimes the flesh was weak.  After two hours of performing passionate rock and roll on a very warm night (which Pete did complain about more than once), it was clear that they needed to rest.  And Roger DID do the screamy bit for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, although he needed to use the long instrumental break to prepare for it, and there was clearly a reason why “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was at the end of the set.

But they did enough.  You didn’t have to half close your eyes and imagine them forty or so years younger.  This was a present tense performance which used the fact that they are seventy as part of their performed emotion.  Rock and Roll has never been better than The Who at their best, and last night they gave it their best because they feel that they cannot afford anything less than complete conviction.

And with the last dying chords I fled the building and caught my train.

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  1. Thanks for this. They are my favorite band. I’ve never seen them live and surely never will. I love what you wrote about Pete’s spirituality and Roger’s atheism. But it’s hard to imagine their music without Entwistle. Or that anyone could play like him. He had his own chemistry with Pete.

  2. Colin permalink

    Interesting viewpoint, and nice overall review. Thanks!

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