There came a time early in The Who’s show at the Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys on Wednesday night when Pete Townshend had seemingly had enough.
The oft-unpredictable Townshend was having trouble keeping his guitars in tune. He also complained about the lights (or lack thereof) on the stage, the overall sound of the band and even the fact they were playing “old people’s music.” And that was after just three songs — each of which, frankly, sounded great and had the entire audience on its feet and singing along.
Then, he hit the opening chord of “The Kids Are Alright,” muttered something into the microphone and walked away, handing one Fender Stratocaster to a stagehand and accepting another in return before returning to the microphone. He leaned forward, and the audience — and, probably, a few of the other musicians — were wondering what might come next.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said loudly in his thick British accent, sardonic as ever. “I’ll get there.”
He flashed a brief, half-smile. The crowd roared. And applauded. And, in probably a few cases, breathed a sigh of relief.
They needn’t have worried. Pete kept his word, and in a big way.
Townshend, ignoring and flat-out belying his 72 years of age, went on to deliver an evening of leaps, windmills, dynamic interplay with drummer Zak Starkey and, especially, some ferocious guitar playing that probably left every guitar player 45 years his junior exhausted from watching.
And the amazing thing is, for many of the songs on this night, he might have been the second-best guy in the band.
Roger Daltrey, 73, sounded stunningly good throughout almost all of the band’s 22-song set, and actually had fans screaming “Roger!” in the late minutes of the show that, for decades, have been Townshend territory.
Yes. The show was that good, and left even the most casual fan wondering how two men that are a combined 145 years of age are still capable of doing it.
The final show of The Who’s relatively brief American tour, which was anchored by a residency in Las Vegas, was a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end. They played pretty much all of the hits (except “Squeeze Box,” which Townshend apparently detests almost as much as an out-of-tune guitar) and all of the CSI theme songs, threw a few surprising twists into some classics to keep them fresh, and didn’t seem to mind going through all the familiar motions in the least.
Simply put, this Who tour was a far cry from most of the tours they’ve done since Townshend first pulled the plug on the band in 1982. Subsequent reunion and reformation tours often featured lots of orchestras and guest stars and, it seemed, a desire to get the music of “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” onto the Broadway stage. (And that part worked.)
What those shows didn’t have was Townshend playing much electric guitar. That’s not a problem these days, and longtime fans who wrote the band off around the time of the “Tommy” tour in 1989 should be kicking themselves for missing this rebirth.
Backed by the thunder of Starkey on drums, the solid bass work of Jon Button, Simon Townshend on guitar and three keyboard players, Townshend showed he may actually still be growing as a lead player. That was a role he didn’t have to fill as much when John Entwistle’s bass was a lead instrument in the band, but his creative fretwork and soloing and still-unmatched rhythm work on this night were often stunning — and always unpredictable. You had to wonder if he ever plays the same solo twice.
Townshend was loud, and on, from the opening chords of “I Can’t Explain” and shredded his way through “The Seeker,” which was the first of about a dozen songs that found Daltrey to be in ridiculously good voice — especially compared with shows from earlier in the decade.
Townshend’s first furious flurry of windmills took place at the end of “Who Are You.” Next came his guitar handoff before “The Kids Are Alright.” But, by the time the next song, “I Can See For Miles,” hit its opening verse, he was bunny-hopping and bounding as if to say “See? I told you I’d be all right.”
Daltrey was more than all right almost all night. He strained to hit some high notes on “Behind Blue Eyes” and a couple of other songs — have we mentioned he’s 73? — but, sipping water from a bottle every few lines, recovered very nicely on “Bargain” and stayed right in tune for most of the rest of the night.
The band even threw a twist into “My Generation,” actually veering into a ramped-up version of “Cry If You Want” from the mediocre “It’s Hard” album. It was immeasurably superior to the album version, and made you wonder what other kind of impromptu jams the band could do if they put their minds to it.
“You Better You Bet” closed the opening half of the show, and had the crowd eagerly dancing and singing to a song that seems more appreciated now than when it was first released.
The second half of the show was a one-two-three punch of songs from “Quadrophenia,” “Tommy” and the natural show-enders, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
It was during this run that Daltrey came very close to stealing the show.
He belted out “5:15” with the clarity and urgency of a young singer determined to sell a new song to a crowd that had never heard it. For a few verses you almost had to wonder if he was singing live, or if they were using a vocal track from the album.
(It was live.)
As good as that was, Daltrey’s true moment to shine came after Townshend soloed on “I’m One” and led the instrumental “The Rock.”
“Love Reign O’er Me” has become Daltrey’s biggest moment of the show, and a moment the truly dedicated fans have come to anticipate. The two-song-break seemed to refresh his pipes to the point where his voice soared to the high notes, dipped down to the low ones and hit you right in the gut with the unforgettable bridge (“I can’t sleep and I lay and I think, the night is hot and black as ink, oh God I need a drink, of cool, cool rain.”) Townshend looked on in appreciation at the job Daltrey was doing of singing perhaps his best-written song, and put his all into one of the best guitar solos of the night.
Townshend took the guitar play up another notch on “Amazing Journey” and “Sparks.” Daltrey sounded Woodstock-good on “See Me, Feel Me.”
By the time “Won’t Get Fooled Again” rolled around, the overflow, multi-generational crowd was singing so loudly that you might have thought it was karaoke night.
And then, it was time for Pete to speak again. He said they may or may not ever play in the United States again (stop us if you’ve heard that one before), bemusedly pointed out they were going to play some shows in South America “thanks to Guns N’ Roses” and, graciously thanked the crowd for coming out and spending their money to see them “at a truly beautiful place.” Daltrey said what a gift it was to sing Townshend’s songs; Townshend said the true gift was having Daltrey to sing them.
And then, they were gone. No encore. They didn’t need one.
On a night that started strong and kicked into high gear after Townshend said “I’ll get there,” it was stunning to reflect on how easy they still make it look. A band that survived the drug-and-alcohol deaths of two key members, and first split up 35 years ago, and has now played almost twice as long with Starkey as drummer as they did with Moon, seems to have pulled off the most unlikely of late-career revivals. They’ve freed themselves of the ridiculously high expectations of the late 1970s and 1980s and gone back to being a working, live band. while dipping into all of the right areas of their deep, and unique, catalog. As Daltrey has said in the past, “No other band ever filled The Who’s gap” – and, best of all, they seem to be enjoying themselves again.
And even if it appears for a minute or two that they’re not having fun, especially early in the show, don’t worry about it. They’ll get there.
Songs played by The Who at Harveys Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena, August 16, 2017:
- I Can’t Explain
- The Seeker
- Who Are You
- The Kids Are Alright
- I Can See for Miles
- My Generation/Cry If You Want
- Naked Eye
- Behind Blue Eyes
- Join Together
- You Better You Bet
- I’m One
- The Rock
- Love, Reign O’er Me
- Eminence Front
- Amazing Journey/Captain Walker
- Pinball Wizard
- See Me, Feel Me
- Baba O’Riley
- Won’t Get Fooled Again