Review by Brad Walseth"And then there were two?" Saturday night saw some of the only remaining survivors from the overindulgent musical era of the 1970s roll into town as rock icons Robert Plant and The Who performed for an appreciative crowd on a sultry night in Tinley Park's Tweeter Center. The 70s were a time of great experimentation both in musical styles as well as personal behavior, and the results at times included extraordinary leaps of imagination, and surprising flights of inspired songwriting; yet the cost these travelers incurred was often great, as many of the finest musicians of the time, including band members and close associates of Plant and The Who, succumbed to ravages of drug and alcohol abuse. On this night, the sense of mortality hung like a cloak in the air over the aging crowd as they watched their beloved icons attempt, with mixed results, to recreate the magic they once commanded; while the ghosts of long departed band mates John Bonham and Keith Moon stood in the shadows, and the spirit of Who bassist John Entwistle - only just laid to rest in the grave after his final, twisting dance in a lonely hotel room with the white lady: cocaine - hovered still.
Photos by Phil Bonyata
To the drone of a bowed acoustic bass, and a warbling prerecorded female Arabic chant, Robert Plant sauntered onto the stage looking fit and relaxed and fully in command. Touring in support of his new album, "Dreamland," the former Led Zeppelin frontman was ably backed by a stellar crew of younger musicians. Their sensitive, yet energetic attention to the requirements of their singer's music produced an enjoyable set of diverse styles - veering from Eastern-inspired dirges, to hard-stompers and earthy blues. Of the songs from the new album, highlights included a jazzy rendition of Tim Rose's oft-covered "Morning Dew," driven by Baggott's percolating electric piano, and Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die," with its heavy guitar interplay, accordion-like keyboards, and powerhouse drumming. Yet it was the old favorites that brought the crowd to life: a pretty version of "Going to California," a raucous rendition of "Four Sticks," a bluesy "Tall Cool One," and a stunning performance of "Babe I'm Gonna' Leave You," where one of the great blues rock singers of all time showed he still had a voice to be reckoned with. Yes, the high notes are no longer there, but they are not missed, for within his lower range lies an instrument of incredible emotive depth and control: a voice that perhaps has gotten better with age like a well-crafted violin. While the new songs were not quite up to the old standards, it was heartening to see a classic artist still attempting to move forward with an interesting, if not earth-shattering, direction; and to see a vocalist still possessing such a sublime talent at an age whereby many singers have lost their voices was nearly worth the price of admission alone.
In contrast, The Who blazed into their hugely produced set with no "new" (ie: written within the last decade) songs, and featuring a lead singer - Roger Daltrey - who blew his vocal cords out by the mid-seventies, never to have his voice return. For a group that still performs the same songs the singer sang in his twenties, this is a problem. Guitarist and primary songwriter, Pete Townshend, attempted to fill the lead vocal void, but his vocals, although earnest, were lacking and off-key fully half the time. Brother Simon Townshend was recruited to add backing vocals and rhythm guitar fullness, although he may have just been there to collect a nepotistic paycheck as he buried so low in the mix as to be almost non-existent.
After frenetic drummer and official band wildman Keith Moon died of an overdose shortly after the release of "Who Are You", Townshend's initial instincts were to permanently disband the influential rock band he had helped found. Based on the dearth of quality material released by the surviving members of the band since, these instincts were entirely right, and one may be forgiven for believing the question on this tour was less "who" then "why?" Even before original bass player John Entwistle's demise on the very eve of this tour, Townshend admitted to Rolling Stone Magazine that he was touring this year as a "favor to Roger... and other people" - presumably his brother, his staff, and old friend Entwistle who all needed paydays more then he did. Had he known he was supporting a fatal coke habit for the bass player nicknamed "The Ox", would he have done the same, you wonder?
The Who's assured place in the hierarchy of rock and roll lies in their achingly sweet Mod singles of the 60's, Townshend's rhythm guitar innovation (he is generally credited with inventing the power chord), Entwistle and Moon's vibrant, quirky, highly-individualistic, non-stop riffing, and the group's flirtation with longer and connected song forms and structures. They produced two albums of greatness: the pop-song tour-de-force "Who's Next," and the epic, Greek tragedy of teen-aged angst - "Quadrophenia" - an underrated gem of a rock opera that continues to this day to influence modern artists such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices; along with several albums of lesser interest, such as the overrated "Tommy" - important primarily in that it is credited as the first rock opera, and the explosive live album- "Live at Leeds". Part of their enduring appeal also seemed to come from their ability to at times emanate the lightness associated with the love and peace generation, while at other times exhibiting the dark streak that allowed the punks to claim them as their own.
They have always been fairly open and honest about this dualism - and part of their bad boy appeal comes from their making no bones about their pursuit of money - from parodying commercialism in "The Who Sells Out," to demanding to be paid at the original Woodstock after it had been declared a free festival (one of the more interesting highlights/lowlights of that celebration of brotherly love was Townshend hitting Abbie Hoffman over the head with his guitar and knocking him offstage), to Townshend licensing his song "Bargain" to Nissan earlier this year for use on car commercials. In light of past behavior, the questionable decision to continue the current tour (Townshend attributed it to looking out for the little people involved in the tour - how magnanimous of him!) after Entwistle's passing should surprise no one (in all honesty Led Zeppelin licensed "Rock and Roll" to Cadillac earlier this year - so the Who are hardly alone in their money grubbing).
To fill the deceased bass player's chair, The Who turned to a familiar face - Pino Palladino - session bassist extraordinaire: a talented player whose playing has graced an extremely wide range of recordings from Don Henley to the Dream Academy, to Paul Young to Nikka Costa; and who has played and recorded with both Daltrey and Townshend in the past - most notably providing the incendiary basswork on the latter's "Give Blood" on his "White City" album. Emulating the low, muddy textures so prized by his predecessor in his later years, Palladino played "The Quiet One's" parts well and avoided the spotlight - an understandably respectful choice, although somewhat disappointing in retrospect. Drummer Zak Starkey - Ringo's son - was an inspired choice to pound the skins for The Who - he having been tutored in his youth by neighbor and family friend Keith Moon - who was almost an uncle (hopefully not an Uncle Ernie) to the young man - and having bought him, so the legend states, his first drum set (complete with naked women painted on the sides). In performance, the young man combined his father's steady time-keeping ability, with a controlled, yet manic, energy, while still remembering the song arrangements and how to hit a hi-hat - two things the late, great Moon was not known for - and two things I'm sure the rest of the band appreciated. Rounding out the roster of backing musicians was longtime musical collaborator - John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards - and it was he who kept the band's harmonic flights centered.
Clearly the center of attention; however, were the two remaining original members - and they gave the audience plenty to cheer (and groan) about. Townshend's famous windmill arm motions and Daltrey's microphone twirling whipped up whirlwinds of audience delight as they bounced the band back and forth like a pinball through various hits of different eras. Opening with three of their earlier songs: "I Can't Explain", "Substitute" and "Anywhere, Anyway, Anyhow", before segueing into "Who Are You" immediately engaged the audience, and the audience sing-along on the line "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth" was impressive (obviously resonating with the crowd, despite the $150 plus cost of the tickets). As the band continued through "Another Tricky Day" - it became quite apparent that Townshend's decision to tour without a lead guitarist was yet another poor one. A passable lead player in the studio, his live work was sloppy, with a good feel for his songs and direction, but embarrassing in its rudimentary nature and choppy fumbling. That a person known the world over as perhaps the greatest rock rhythm guitarist, and highly acclaimed composer needs to satisfy his ego through feeble lead guitar work is yet another self-imposed detraction from the presentation as a whole. Having recently witnessed former Cars guitarist Elliott Easton's live work with Creedence Clearwater Revisited, I can attest to how much an excellent lead guitarist can bring to the sound. Was it an unwillingness to share attention, or the piece of the pie, that led to this oversight? I suspect a combination of both.
As the band plunged into the much beloved "Baba O' Reilly", Daltrey's vocals faltered on the opening - leaving the audience gasping in stunned disbelief as he didn't even come close to hitting the key on the well known stanzas. Like Plant, his voice no longer ascends to the higher tonal regions - unlike Plant, he still tries and fails. This central part of the concert showcased Daltrey and truly brought out how much his band mates have carried him since his unfortunate loss of his voice. Townshend tried to cover for his singer with his own middling vocals, while Daltrey's instrumental attempts: the harmonica outro - in lieu of the original violin - on "Baba", the repeating, one-riff guitar part on "Eminence Front", were barely serviceable, even in their simplified forms. The tell-tale moment; however, occurred during an otherwise promising medley of songs from "Quadrophenia". A blistering rendition of "5:15" wound down, and Rabbit's beautiful little piano washes brought us into "Love, Reign O'er Me", when some microphone feedback apparently distracted the former golden boy into forgetting lyrics. After the song concluded, the frustrated lead singer verbally tore into the sound crew and demanded that the band do the song again. To the horror of audience and band alike, the prima donna got his wish, and an embarrassed Rabbit half-heartedly began the intro again. Sure enough, they played the entire song again, but in an ironic note, the microphone squeaks continued even on the second go-around (frankly I felt for the sound crew - surely swinging a sensitive microphone around can't be good, can it?).
After this ludicrous sidetrack, the rest of the set fared better, with "You Better, You Better, You Bet" pumped along nicely via the octave jumping Palladino, a nice version of "Behind Blue Eyes" (nice - not transcendent like the original - again due to the vocals), the ever-popular "My Generation", and of course a ripping "Won't Get Fooled Again". The fine overall sound, despite Daltrey's complaints, was rich and full, and aside from aforementioned areas of concern, pretty damn impressive and energetic, especially for group members approaching their sixties. The hits just kept coming - even a heavier version of "Bargain" that only half had me wondering if there were subliminal messages involved and half the crowd might rush out to buy a Maxima.
Nearing the end of the night, The Who suddenly changed pace and in a startling and heartfelt manner brought forth a gentle acoustic driven "The Kids Are Alright", presented almost as a lullaby - directed not just to kids, but to the "kids" in their audience who have grown and have children and even grandchildren of their own now, and who worry about them. The remaining members of a long gone time - the only ones left - were passing on a message, and the message was clear: young people have always rebelled against their elders - they always have and they always will, but somehow adolescents get through their troubled times and humanity goes on. Therein, lies much of the value that the elders of The Who bring: the delivery of a simple message of understanding that echoes down through all generations - yours or mine.
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