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The Who At Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, November 5th, 2012 Reviewed

On Wednesday, November 14th, 2012, I was at Chris Owens 3rd solo gig ever. Owens is the former lead singer of Girls and it was pretty magnificent stuff.Trouser Press Editor Ira Robbins was at  Barclay Center reviewing the same show I saw at MSG two days ago, a performance of the Who's Quardophenia. A review that stands as maybe the best piece of rock writing this year. But a review I mostly disagree with. "At their best, the Who were an all-things-possible careening behemoth with a one-mind center of gravity that pounded out beauty, improvised astonishing digressions on the spot as if guided by an outside force and made music that was not just loud but huge and imposing, with emotional components and an undercurrent of frustration and rage that threatened violence at every broken string or sputtering amplifier"

That isn't the part I disagree with, and if Robbins was referring to the half hour of mid-70s "hits" that ended the show I might even agree with this: "I went to see how some old friends were faring. Like a long-ago girlfriend with new kids and none of the old spark. Just checking…  the least I could do was show up and gouge the results. I have. No joy, no embarrassment. Just a sorrowful set of memories."

Where Robbins and I disagree is on Quadrophenia itself, both the album and the performance. Quadrophenia the album is neither an exercise in nostalgia nor a secret handshake between early mod fans and Townshend. Rather, it is similar to Tommy, a work of fiction in a milieu Townshend is intimately aware of which evolves into a piece of extended self-analysis.Pete uses the Mod era because he knows it not because he misses it (the movie version is the exception to that, not the rule) In the  performance on Wednesday night, archival film of WWII. Post WWII, 1950s and early 1960s was shown on video screen as the opening instrumental “I Am The Sea” played. In Tommy, the titular hero is traumatized as a boy during WWII and then falls out of time till he awakens in what appears to be the 1970s.

In effect, both Tommy and Q protagonist Jimmy are born in WW2, and come to life, when Townsend needs to awaken them. They go through an enlightenment only to end  thoroughly disillusioned and alone. Townsend isn’t writing Mod anthems here, he isn’t returning to “the action”, the Mods And Rockers battles in the early 1960s, to make a point about either the mods and rockers or r&b and rock and roll. The music is a variant on the hard rock Pete was writing in the 1970s. And it is, much more than Tommy an operatic, symphonic structure. Four musical movements reflecting Jimmy's state of mind.  At the end of the performance Townsend said that the 90 minute performance was meant to flow.

That’s what it does. It flows. And it also doesn’t NEED the Who to be performed. I saw  a  performance of Q back in 1996 (three times actually) with John Entwistle's bass and I can tell you absolutely they are equals. And what they have in common is that as an opera, they are written to be played. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t the Who who plays them. Q stands alone. I was listening to a (very) old recording of George Gershwin playing “Rhapsody In Blue” at Carnegie Hall  in the 1920s. It was really gorgeous but so what? “Rhapsody In Blue”  doesn’t need Gershwin and Quadrophenia doesn’t need the Who.

But on Wednesday night we got half the Who, and also Entwistle’s inspired bass solo beaming down on us from above on “5:15” and Keith Moon singing “Bellboy”, giving an added sneer to “always running at someone’s bleeding heel". I’ve seen Billy Idol as the Face slash Bell Boy, Sting as well,  but Moon really is superb. I miss him still. Roger Daltry looks in pretty good nick though he seemed to be saving his voice for a showstopping “Love Reign O’er Me”, having both Pete (who doesn’t look in such great nick) and Pete’s brother Simon, handle vocal chores here and there. Townshend may not be playing as loud as he used and may be dolling out the windmill rarely, but his playing is excellent always. And his “I’m One” on acoustic guitar was a showstopper.

The back up band is very good. Robbins called Zak Starkey the second best Keith Moon, and on “Drown” that is precisely what Zak is.  The playing is really good, it is a long difficult seamless piece of work and they maintain exquisite control for the entire 90 minutes. In some ways it is less a rock concert and more a musical performance. You can envision in 10 or 30 years from now, it being performed at the Lincoln Center, maybe joining the repertoire.

Both Pete and Roger look old and neither of them are less than aging rock and roll stars but that doesn't make their performance terrible as such. I don't find it bad as such to see old rock stars. I went to see the Meters earlier this year, and their age made zero difference to their performance. With half the band dead, but also if the band wasn't half dead, the Who of 2012 were not going to be the Who of 1965. But what they were not doing was picking up an easy paycheck. Except for the greatest hits that ended the set (not my hits, by the way) it was a towering creation and an enthralling presentation of sonic guitar rock. With none of the pomp that inflicted the prog of the time, the band were at the back of the duo as they navigated the intricate four musical movements to the climax and both Roger and Pete were a concentrated force. Quardophenia was a perfect choice to tour behind, thirty minutes of extended "Who Are You"" is unthinkable.

But is it what we want from the Who? The album has only one, maybe two, great songs, and what makes it work so well is its guitar symphonic aspirations It has its anthems but it isn't an anthem album and the audience don't stand around screaming rock and roll and flicking their cells on (I wouldn't care if they did, by the way, the idea is to have fun). The evening was what Arena rock so seldom is, it was a success as art, as culture and as rock. I am going to see the Stones on Saturday and I expect them to be great, but I don't expect them to be this. However, to answer my question, no this is not what we want from the Who. But we didn't want “Summertime Blues” at Woodstock either. What we want is Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, though if we had gotten it that would  been really sad. Or maybe it wouldn't have been really sad. Does "I Can't Explain" have an age limit? Does "My Generation" mean less when sung by old men, or does its meaning jump over the irony? The hits segment at the end was everything Robbins claimed the evening was, it was sad, but maybe a return to the years when Townshend was giving a certain Kinks Kronikler a run for his money would have ended the evening in fitting style instead of  turgid regurgitation (Pete called it “the usual shit”) . We wanted “A Legal Matter”, but we got “Behind Blue Eyes”. I left during “Won’t get Fooled Again”.

I don’t know what, if anything, the future holds for the Who. Daltry has been performing Tommy solo and Townshend’s been writing dreadful songs for Daltry to sing. I saw Townshend do a solo show at the Supperclub in the 90s. Just moving from piano to guitar and back. I would love to see him end his career doing that. But I am happy to have heard this version of Quadrophenia, It wasn’t about sad old men, it was about a work of music with a life larger then itself.

Grade: B+

(video by Joseph McElroy)


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