November 5, 2006
The Hollywood Bowl
Concert Review by Shawn Perry
I saw the Who four years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, four days after bassist John Entwistle passed away in Las Vegas. Like everyone else, I was curious how they could get it together so quickly and carry on after losing such a vital member of the team. I missed half the show due to certain logistical difficulties, but was was there for some pretty heavy moments, including Townshend’s truthfully brutal rants about Entwistle’s demise. But the minute I heard stand-in bassist Pino Palladino's attempt to plow through the distinctive bass lines of “My Generation,” the show went cold and I swore this would be the last time I'd venture out to see the Who. Without discounting Palladino, a world-class bassist who’s backed everyone from Jeff Beck to Simon and Garfunkel, it just wasn’t the same thunderous bottom end that, to me, was so integral to the gritty underbelly of the Who's sound. Besides, with only half the original band left, how could Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey possibly continue calling themselves the Who? The Two would be a more appropriate moniker.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been that surprised by their resiliency. After all, the members of the Who didn’t initially have much trouble getting past Keith Moon’s death in 1978 (Mooney in his last couple of years contributed very little in the way of the crazy dynamics he was so well known for). The surviving three recruited former Faces stickman Kenny Jones, recorded two albums, and played together for another decade. Just when it looked like they were ready to hang it up, the Who celebrated their existence by dumping Jones, hiring side musicians, and revisiting their past, playing Tommy and Quadrophenia, during different tours, in their entirety, as well as reprising the usual staples — “Can’t Explain,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” among them. New drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son and a “student” of Moon's, seemed to fire up the old engine and recharge the reckless drive of the band. Talk of a new album floated around for years, but once the Ox checked out, that possibility seemed more distant and improbable than ever.
The Who, or what was left of them, rolled through town two years ago. For the first time since 1970, I intentionally skipped their performance, convinced they were done and would eventually morph into a desperate revival act sucked into the casino/fair circuit (which isn’t necessarily a bad way to go, but for a band like the Who, it just doesn’t ring right). The only item that would have possibly stirred my interest in seeing them was that they had recorded "Real Good Looking Boy" and "Old Red Wine," two "new" songs for the Then And Now 1964-2004 compilation, and were performing them regularly. But with such slim offerings, I balked at the thought of sitting through a run-through of the usual lot — “Can’t Explain,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” among them.
Talk of a new album seemed to take a more decisive turn. The fresh approach to the Who and its music that Townshend and Daltrey had spoken of following the Quiet One’s death was about to take shape on a more profound level. As is usually the case with a new album, the Who were mounting another tour. I refrained from buying tickets, but then I heard Endless Wire, a real Who album of new material in 24 years, and realized I was about to eat my words. After each spin, I found myself willing to put up with inconvenience of hiking up the hill to the Hollywood Bowl to see Townshend, Daltrey and their gang of supportive hooligans to blast through, per all reports, a generous batch of new songs. Somehow, putting up with “Can’t Explain,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” didn’t seem like such a stretch.
So I cruised down the 101 on an uncharacteristically warm Sunday night, psyching myself out for my tenth Who show. Arriving promptly at 7:00, I sipped on a $9 cup of Heineken and watched a 45-minute set by a Boulder, Colorado-based power trio called Rose Hill Drive. They played an energetic selection of old school hard rock before acquiescing to the fact that it’s a tough assignment opening for a legend like the Who. A polite reception, no encore, and at 8:00, the lights came down for the headliner. Kicking into the durable opener “Can’t Explain,” Townshend and Daltrey took command of the stage and never let up. A five-screen backdrop plying old film footage of the original four lifted the performance to new heights of merriment and pageantry. “The Seeker” and “Substitute” followed, and it was as if the Who, even without John Entwistle and Keith Moon, had set their sights on becoming the hottest band on the planet. Townshend, sporting dark glasses and a fez to hide his follicly challenged scalp, still swings his arm as wildly as a New York Yankee southpaw warming up for the World Series. Daltrey, even youthful behind the granny shades, has toned down his growl and minimized the microphone lassoing — at least for now.
The old made way for the new as “Fragments,” its opening sequence borrowing heavily from “Baba O’Riley,” spread its heavy breathing vibe over the 18,000 or so crowded onto the benches and bleachers of the bowl. But that was just a taste of things to come as we slipped back into the time machine for routine work-outs of “Who Are You,” “Behind Blues Eyes,” and the ever predictable, but always delectable power chords of “Baba O’Riley.” Band introductions alerted the assembled that longtime keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick wasn’t present, and was instead tending to his ailing missus. Then it was time for a slew of more new stuff that enigmatically fell out of the sky and massaged the ear drums like a vamp of unexpected houseguests. A slice of “Wire & Glass,” the new mini opera, implored and sniffed out its admirers, supplemented by a heavy dose of visuals that didn’t so much explain the tale as they exhorted its virtues and timelessness. Other tracks from Endless Wire — “A Man In A Pruple Dress,” “Black Widow’s Eyes,” and “Mike Post Theme” — were offered up and copiously consumed by the audience, many of whom could probably care less what they played as long they could say they saw the Who before they died. And while I could argue that no one has actually “seen” the Who — at least the Who I saw — since 1978, for once I took a beat seat and strapped myself in for the long haul.
Coming down the homestretch, Townshend ditched his fez and Daltrey anxiously paced the stage, possibly in anticipation of screaming his climatic “Yeah!” during “Won’t Get Fooled.” Even though I was mildly thwarted by the absence of Thunderfingers’ apocalyptic bass runs on “My Generation,” the ensuing jam section and video clips featuring a variety of dancers were enough to make me forget Entwistle’s immortal presence, if only for a moment. Repeated video clips of Entwistle and Moon in their hey day reminded everyone that the Who of yesteryear is the one everyone should remember and respect.
The encore was all Tommy, something I never tire of. “Pinball Wizard” made way for “Amazing Journey” and the extended “Sparks” instrumental where Daltrey voraciously slapped two tambourines together while Townshend, Starkey, Palladino, rhythm guitarist (and Pete’s younger brother) Simon Townshend, and understudy keyboardist Brain Kehew engaged in a spiral of musical warfare. Then the familiar lexis of “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” fluttered in and gripped the captive witnesses transported through the peaks and valleys that Tommy endured for the sake of sanity. As the crowd chanted,“Listening to you/I get the music/Gazing at you/I get the heat…” from “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” I started to exit, not realizing that the Who, who used to shun encores entirely, would be back with another “new” song, “Tea And Theatre.” The mellow notes flew through the air as I walked out of the bowl and down the hill. I was glad I had changed my mind. Perhaps another album will get me to an eleventh show and then…who knows?