For The Who, the song is not quite over

Roger Daltrey, left, and Pete Townshend perform in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Kalpana Ramgopal)

Roger Daltrey, left, and Pete Townshend perform in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Kalpana Ramgopal)

By David W. Bulla

(Note: Fifty years ago this month, The Who released their first song, “I Can’t Explain,” in England, on the Brunswick label. It actually came out  one month earlier in the United States, on Decca. A previous song, “Zoot Suit,” had come out when the band was called The High Numbers. “I Can’t Explain” first appeared on the British charts in February 1965 and reached No. 8 two months later. The following is a review of the first concert The Who had on their current, and final, tour.)

ABU DHABI—On a pleasant November Sunday evening on Yas Island, the surviving two members of the British band The Who and their current musical mates showed an audience of mostly (older) expats that their reign as one of the greatest groups in rock history is not quite over.

Playing at the outdoor Du Arena after the season-ending Formula 1 event at nearby Yas Marina Circuit on Nov. 23, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend put on a two-hour show that was much more than would have been expected for a post-race complementary concert (getting into the music show meant buying a race ticket). Indeed, the launch to their so-called final tour—Daltrey is 70 and Townshend is 69—featured 25 songs spanning a half century of rock music excellence. It will be quite a feat if the two and the rest of their current band, including Pete’s brother Simon, can keep up the pace over the next year and a half, as scheduled.

Launched in tandem with the recently released “The Who Hits 50!” from Geffen Records (which I picked up for $11 USD at a Wal-Mart in Dalton, Georgia, on a recent research conference trip to the States), The Who’s farewell tour got off to a rousing start with the group’s first major hit, “I Can’t Explain.” That was followed by perhaps The Who’s greatest pop song, “Substitute.” The hits onslaught continued with “The Seeker,” “The Kids Are Alright” and “I Can See For Miles.”

However, the crowd of approximately 20,000 at Yas got into full roar with the sixth song, “Who Are You.” Perhaps the fact it has become the title song for a popular American crime mystery television series gave the audience an extra kick of Pete-induced guitar adrenalin. The other major crowd pleasers on this night were “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from what will be The Who’s most lasting album, “Who’s Next”—the one my great-great-great grandchildren will listen to and discuss the way previous generations talked about Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

But for this 55-year-old Who fan from America, the topper was “5:15” from Quadrophenia. It came relatively late in the program and included visually compelling scenes from a subway on the huge background video. It was also cool to have late drummer Keith Moon on screen singing the lyrics to “Bell Boy,” as well as late bassist John Entwistle’s strumming to “5:15.” Ah, the wonders of technology—bringing back the dead for this last waltz.

The only disappointment was their not playing “My Generation,” the title track of their first album, which came out in December 1965, or any of their latest material, including “Be Lucky,” which is on “The Who Hits 50!” Still it was remarkable to be so close to the action—my wife and son were on the front row, and I was back about 100 yards—and to see the interplay between Roger and Pete, who seemed in synch and determined to put on an energetic show.

Still, Townshend, ever the perfectionist, at times seemed to be disgusted with the play of current drummer Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr. Only a musician of Pete’s caliber could detect the off note or the wrong tempo from his drummer. To the amateurs in the audience at the arena that looks like the inside of a zeppelin hanger, it all sounded fine.

Pete was in a fairly talkative mood. At one point in the evening, the band’s songwriter gave props to Lewis Hamilton, the winner of the Abu Dhabi auto race earlier in the day. “Well done, Lewis,” Pete quipped after the British driver had wrapped up the Formula 1 points title on his way to being British sportsman of the year.

Townshend was funny too. When he arrived back on stage for the encore before the rest of the band, he looked at the audience and said: “I can do this without that lot. They’re rubbish.” He smiled, and then the rest of the band, led by Roger, came back on stage to finish the night of sonic energy. Of course, he needed “that lot.”

They closed with “The Real Me,” and although Roger stumbled off stage over a microphone stand, there really were no major glitches on the night, despite Pete’s sometimes surly mood toward his band mates. It was two hours of the best of The Who—with Roger, wearing glasses with blue lenses, lassoing his microphone chord and Pete wind-milling the lead guitar. They band charged the atmosphere with such loud rock-and-roll that jets landing and taking off at nearby Abu Dhabi International Airport could not penetrate the din.

When it was over and as we rode the bus back to our car in the nearby town of Shahama, which was enshrouded in London-like fog, it struck me that for my family the song was, in fact, likely over. As much as my 6-year-old son admires this band’s music, he is unlikely to have an opportunity to see Pete and Roger again live.

This was the only sad moment in otherwise festive night on a small desert island in Arabia–on a night when the song clearly was not over just yet.

(David W. Bulla is a communication professor and former sports writer who writes books about the history of journalism. He lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.)

 

 

 

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