Let’s start off this review by answering the main question, can The Who still rock? The succinct answer is—hell yeah! Are they as good as they were in their prime? No, but they came pretty damn close in their Wednesday night concert at the Consol Energy Center.
Pete Townshend’s original power-windmill guitar strokes are as spectacular as ever to witness. The guy must have an amazing rotator cuff. Roger Daltrey’s voice and patented rock scream seem pretty much intact. Unfortunately two legendary band members, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, have joined the great rock band in the sky. However, The Who have found very capable replacements in drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son and Keith Moon’s godson; he has played with the band since 1994) and bassist Pino Palladino. Other musicians adding their talents to the band are Pete’s brother Simon Townshend (guitar), Loren Gold (keyboards), John Corey (keyboards), and Frank Simes (music director, keyboardist, and multi-instrumentalist).
You Never Know!
The Who always garner a lot of attention when they tour and deservedly so. The band’s lure admittedly skews older, but there were many younger folks in the seats as well. Before the show I talked with a young, hip married couple from Brookline who travel to a lot of Moe concerts. When I asked what had brought them to this concert, husband Dave Santoro said “I always wanted to see The Who…They play some great music and are on my bucket list.” His wife contributed: “You never know how much longer they’ll be touring.”
The audience appeared to be a sellout crowd and was revved up for this overdue occasion. The Who were originally scheduled to play the ‘Burgh several months ago until Roger Daltrey came down with viral meningitis. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts had been scheduled as the opening act for tour dates including Pittsburgh, but couldn’t make the new dates due to Jett’s own tour. That brought us the skilled young bass guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld with her talented backup band. Although Wilkenfeld may not yet be a household name, the people she’s played bass for are: Jeff Beck, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock, to name a few. The 29-year-old Australian, already well respected in the music community for her instrumental work, is evolving into a singer/songwriter and this was a chance to shine in her new role. It was nice sight to see Wilkenfeld playing an emerald-green Sadowsky bass. For softer songs she used an acoustic guitar. The crowd appreciated her efforts and gave her a nice round of applause.
After Willkenfeld’s set was over, The Who’s guitar techs and roadies started setting up the stage for the headliners. Then on the video screens a picture-and-text montage began showing past Who concerts and venues in Pittsburgh. Tributes to fallen band members Moon and Entwistle also ran. It was a nice touch.
Cranking It Up
Pete Townshend started The Who’s first number—”Who Are You?”—by striking his red Stratocaster guitar with a windmill power stroke. Daltrey joined in on acoustic guitar and the rest of the band was off and running. During the song, Daltrey would point to individuals in the crowd, smile, and sing the title phrase “Who are you?” Starkey played drums frenetically behind a clear plexiglass partition at the middle of the stage.
All band members wore monochromatic dark-colored clothing. Townshend was in a black pocket t-shirt with a red pocket puff inserted. Starkey sported a snappy black-and-red checkered vest. Daltrey had a pair of cool purple-lensed glasses. After the band’s next song, “The Seeker,” Daltrey talked about when he was a young married man with wife and kids living in a flat, and he would look out the window at The Who van parked below and yearn for his freedom and the open road. He ultimately chose the band and his freedom—and that tale segued into “The Kids Are Alright.” Daltrey strapped on a red speckled acoustic guitar with yellow trim for the song, which featured nice harmonies from the band while the screens showed videos of Mods on scooters traveling the open roads and white-cliff ridges of England. Townshend said “Thanks for coming; I like Pittsburgh.” The sound level was just right—loud, but not too loud.
… And the Music Just Kept Coming
After “I Can See for Miles,” “My Generation” was next on the set list (which has remained pretty much the same for each concert on this leg of the tour; as we all get older it’s best to stick to the familiar). The song was extended for longer play and featured prominent bass lines, drums, and mixed-tempo rhythms, which is the one of the hallmarks of a great band. It ended with a ferocious guitar lick from Townshend and Starkey’s killer drum fills.
Townshend talked about the band’s album Quadrophenia and how it depicted the Mod culture and lifestyle they arose from. The Who then exploded into “Can You See the Real Me” with extraordinary bass, drums, guitars, and vocals. This song amped up the crowd even further. Daltrey switched acoustic guitars before playing the intro to “Behind Blue Eyes” and was at his soulful best. At the beginning of the song a blue eye was on the screen, and when the song went to a quicker, harder tempo later, the eye started emitting steam.
In introducing “You Better You Bet,” Townshend noted: “I was in Pittsburgh for a concert and in love with a girl. I visited The Carnegie, viewing paintings and art. I wrote part of the song here.” He then put on a brown Strat for the song. Daltrey—always a fantastic lead singer and front man—engaged the crowd in a sing along on some of the lyrics. For “The One,” Townshend used an acoustic with a large black pick guard that featured some decorative elements. Daltrey introduced Townshend’s “Rock” instrumental with high praise. An eerie green light, then red, pervaded the stage while news footage from the past fifty years, most of it troubling, played silently on the screen.
“Love, Reign O’er Me” was a highlight with Daltrey doing an impressive job on the vocals, looking upward for the love to reign down on him. Daltrey unleashed his hard-to-match rock scream during the song. Townshend used the whammy bar of his red strat and other power techniques to fuel the song. Whirling synth sounds and power drumming also contributed heavily to the mix. The band then powered through “Eminence Front,” “Amazing Journey,” and “Sparks,” taking them to “Pinball Wizard.”
On “Pinball Wizard’s” open Townshend opens the song up with power guitar riffs, about a minute later Daltrey starts the vocals, the other guitarists come in and then Starkey joins the fray with powerful drumming. Daltrey does his corded mic twirl as pinball videos show on the screens. Without stopping The Who goes right into “See Me, Feel Me.” Daltrey opens with quiet lyrics for a couple of minutes and then the rest the band comes in big. Next Baba O’Riley—known for its “teenage wasteland” lyrics—opens with synths, then the rest of the band joins in and Daltrey plays harmonica.
The last song was ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ which was another strong rocker. There was no encore, which is how it was in other cities too. The band played for two hours straight and after the song was over Townshend and Daltrey talked to the audience for a few moments.
The Who has always been a creative, evolving musical force over their fifty-year career. With how everyone in the band is playing I think we may see their final, final farewell tour in 2025.
Unlike what occurred with the younger Who, no guitars, drum kits, or amps were harmed in the making of the Pittsburgh concert. Glad they didn’t all die before they got old!
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and loves great music.