"Let's get together before we get much older."
It's not very likely. Last night the Who played Portland for what is probably going to be the final time, and it was, against virtually every odd in the book, absolutely fantastic. The original band’s two surviving members—Roger Daltrey, 72, and Pete Townshend, who turns 71 tomorrow—seem to know full well that bringing the Who’s 52-year-old catalog out of mothballs is largely an exercise in nostalgia. But they have another hard fact on their side: That catalog is one of the most significant and sturdy in rock history, and it works marvelously when played at loud volumes in gigantic rooms. So rather than try to pretend that drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle never existed, or try to Xerox the vital elements those two contributed to the Who’s sound, this 2016 iteration of the Who embraced the past warmly and respectfully, suggesting that the songs themselves are the stars, not the elderly Englishmen onstage playing them. Rather than try to airbrush out the years that have gone by, they let the passage of time work in the songs’ favor, and the result was powerful, affirming, and remarkably emotional.
It worked because Townshend and Daltrey acted their age, dammit. Yes, Townshend did a few windmills and Daltrey swung his mic around by its cable for a minute or two, but for the most part the pair approached the Who’s gymnastics, both musical and physical, with a measured amount of caution. Daltrey capably hit the high notes when called upon to do so, and the fact that he’s still performing "Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”—two of the most vocally demanding songs in the classic-rock canon—on a regular basis is pretty astounding. But he would often point the mic out to the crowd and let the audience do some of his work for him—as on, for instance, the well-worn “teenage wasteland” lines of “Baba O’Riley.” And after hitting the sustained high note in the first chorus of “Bargain” (“the best I ever haaaaad”), he let guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete’s younger brother) take over those larynx-splitting lines for the rest of the song.
Indeed, Daltrey and Townshend have chosen their backing band wisely. Simon was a perfect foil for his brother, and they traded those etched-in-stone riffs back and forth with aplomb. Drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son, learned how to play directly from Moon when he was a child, but rather than copycat the Loon’s distinctive, surf-inspired parts, Starkey instead emulated his energy. And bassist Pino Palladino stood nearly motionless, almost invisible, in the thick of the sonic maelstrom, which almost certainly is a cue he picked up directly from Entwistle’s reserved stage presence—but he downplayed the flashiness of Entwistle’s treble-heavy style and quick fretboard runs, instead functioning as the band's steady anchor.
The setlist was bulletproof, the only weak spot being a run-through of 1981’s “You Better You Bet,” which has always sounded to me like a lame rewrite of Townshend’s solo hit “Let My Love Open the Door.” Even the slight “Squeeze Box” turned out to be a lot of fun, especially when the big screen behind the band showed a delightful animation that brought Entwistle’s hand-drawn caricatures of the band members from the cover of 1975’s The Who by Numbers to life. Other highlights included a voracious, set-opening “Who Are You,” a lively “Join Together,” and a surprisingly wistful “The Kids Are Alright.” And, giving a two-fingered salute to the passage of time, Daltrey deliberately uttered the famous line in “My Generation” (“hope I die before I get old”) in an exaggerated wheezing growl.
The show's emotional highlight came during a mini-set of Quadrophenia songs, which centered around the instrumental suite “The Rock,” in which all the musical motifs of the rock opera congeal. Townshend preceded it by talking about London's mod scene of the '60s, which inspired the album’s plot; he also connected it to the punk culture that exploded out the Pacific Northwest in the early ’80s. (When he told the crowd to “fuck off,” the cheers were deafening.) What remains remarkable about that unwieldy double album is how angry and nihilistic much of it is, as the young mod at the story's center loses faith in everything around him—and yet it concludes with a prayer (“Love, Reign O’er Me”) that is full of desperation and hope, and becomes a fully considered depiction of humanity.
A Tommy mini-set followed, and was almost as good, particularly during the “Amazing Journey/Sparks” section, during which the band found some room to improvise. The show ended with the unkillable one-two of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and Daltrey and Townshend expressed their gratitude it the crowd with some stage patter before calling it a night. There wasn’t an encore, but it felt like the band had played everything they needed to; only a staunch advocate for their mid-'60s singles might've felt like anything was missing.
Before departing the stage, Townshend said to the crowd, “Do us a favor. Tell your friends they missed us… because tomorrow we die!!” It was a sly acknowledgement that this particular go-round is probably going to be the last we’ll see of the Who. And if last night is any indication, they’re going out with a proper bang, giving both their fans and their thunderous songbook a proper send-off. Putting the voices of their fans into the lyrics of their best songs has been the Who’s trademark, and in the live setting it makes for remarkable communion. It’s why a Who show feels different from that of almost any other band that performs on that scale. And in the case of last night, it made for one for the best musical performances I’ve ever seen inside a basketball arena.
Also read our preview article, "The Song Isn't Over—Not for the Who, Not Quite Yet."