I saw two Who shows within five days in July 2008, but they were a completely different band each time. On July 12, taping the VH1 Honors show at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey seemed detached from each other, their bandmates and the crowd. The hourlong gig was a fairly joyless affair, likely brought on by nerves at not having played in more than nine months.
What a difference a few days of lazing at the Four Seasons made. The Who’s gig at the historic, 2,000-seat Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. was a corporate affair put on for the male-centric attendees of the big E3 confab by MTV Games and Harmonix, the firms behind the Rock Band videogame.
I was expecting a quick-and-dirty, perfunctory 30-minute set of the greatest hits, but the Who ended up playing for about 100 minutes, and its frontmen chatted at length throughout the concert. They also bothered to slot in some different songs from the VH1 gig, including “I Can’t Explain,” “5:15” from Quadrophenia, the newish song “Fragments,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “Pinball Wizard” and “The Kids Are Alright.”
I was lucky to get a seat in the fourth row, right in front of Pete, a perfect vantage point to take in one of the best rock concerts ever. Both he and Roger were dressed all in black, and Pete wore his big sunglasses. He spent much of the show airborne, chopping away at his guitars. Roger, in robust voice, twirled his microphone cord incessantly, boosting the lackluster air-conditioning. Zak Starkey played monstrous drums, mouthing the words like Keith Moon did.
At the outset, Pete marveled at the “wonderful theater,” expressed gratitude at being invited to play “your party,” and joked that his band was actually a Who covers group that played just as well as the others.
He frequently referenced Rock Band, recalling that he tried unsuccessfully to play “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on the game that his son got for Christmas. He also said he wanted to meet the person responsible for the colors used in the game. “Bad choice,” he deadpanned. “When (MTV/Harmonix parent) Viacom can buy some other colors, it’ll be good.”
Clearly, Pete was enthralled by technology and the people who make it. “I love software,” he said. “If Bach had software, he would have used it.” He later told the crowd, “I’m really pleased with what you’re doing.” On other occasions, he joked about the upcoming Guitar Hero: Aerosmith game, and grimly talked about Ronnie Wood coughing up blood. (This was after Roger had complained that the L.A. pollution was making him awfully phlegmy and pointed to the evidence on the stage.)
Pete and Roger said a lot, in fact, but they frequently spoke at the same time, so much of the banter was unclear. Or the context, like when Pete said: “As to the future of rock ‘n ‘roll, who gives a fuck?” The declaration succeeded in getting everyone excited though.
The hits included “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You.” Also: “Behind Blue Eyes,” “The Seeker,” and a tune Pete said was from 1971,so likely from Who’s Next. “My Generation” was fierce, degenerating into a jam session.
I wasn’t expecting an encore, but they quickly came back to do “The Kids Are Alright.” Pete’s string broke at the end of “Pinball Wizard,” when he was losing the plot anyway. He joked about it, they finished the song and moved onto the other Tommy songs—“Amazing Journey,” “Sparks” and “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You.” A second encore wrapped things about 10:45 p.m., just Pete and Rog on “Tea and Theatre,” from the recently released record Endless Wire, which I confess—as of 2014—is still in cellophane wrapping in my CD room.
It takes a lot to get me to concerts these days, and I’m usually looking at my watch after 30 minutes plotting an early escape, but this show was simply stunning. Long live rock! Given the heavy nerd factor at the show, hopefully bootleg footage has proliferated. Hunt it down and learn.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above story, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is now available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2008, 2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING