The Who Remain A Formidable Rock Force On New Album

“Although it’s been 13 years since their last LP and more than half a century since they formed, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey still know who they are” (Rolling Stone). “While Who is an album brimming with experience, emotion and ideas, it’s ultimately aimed at the fans who have always stuck with them, through thick and thin. Their best since Quadrophenia, then. Just don’t leave it so long next time, eh?” (UNCUT). “Whether Roger Daltrey is bellowing through anti-war flamenco or slagging off copycat bands, The Who have lost none of their vim and vigour. Just don’t mention Brexit.” (NME).

On Friday, The Who released WHO, their widely anticipated new studio album. From what I have seen, it has received mostly positive reviews. While I oftentimes feel music critics are desperately trying to be clever in an effort to say something memorable, I have no problem citing reviews I happen to agree with! The Who are among my favorite ’60s rock bands, so I realize there’s no way I can be completely unbiased here. After having listened to WHO various times, I have to agree with NME there is plenty of vim and vigour on this album.

The Who have now existed for some 55 years, which is incredible in and of itself. Okay, there were some breaks in-between when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey worked on solo projects. And, yes, it is fair to say the band hasn’t been 100 percent the same since the untimely death of Keith Moon in September 1978 at age 32 – not to mention The Ox John Entwistle who passed away in June 2002. Still, The Who’s longevity is truly remarkable. Think about it, how many bands other than The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys can you name that have lasted for more than half a century?

Here’s another remarkable aspect: WHO is only the 12th studio album by The Who, and their first since Endless Wire, which came out in October 2006 – a whopping 13 years ago! And the preceding record It’s Hard dates back all the way to June 1982. That’s the one with Eminence Front, one of my favorite tunes from the band’s later-stage career – actually, from today’s perspective, it’s not even their midstage if you base it on the number of years the band has been in existence!

Pete Townshend & Roger Daltrey

Back to WHO. There are various tracks on the album showing Pete Townshend still knows how to write great music. But what really stands out to me is Roger Daltrey’s singing. At age 75, he still is a formidable vocalist. “It’s a feat made all the more incredible given his brush with the Grim Reaper in 2015 following a bout of viral meningitis,” UNCUT’s above review rightly points out – and, as USA Today reported, after recurring laser surgeries Daltrey apparently needs to undergo to remove precancerous cells from his throat.

And let’s not forget about the fine backing musicians, including long-time drummer Zak Starkey, bassist Pino Palladino and keyboarder Benmont Tench. There are also Gordon Giltrap (acoustic guitar) and Gus Seyffert, who plays bass on three tracks, as well as various additional drummers: Carla Azar, Matt Chamberlain, and Joey Waronker. Last but not least, Pete’s younger brother Simon Townshend, who is also part of the band’s touring line-up, contributed one of the songs: Break The News. All other tracks except for one were written by Pete. Time for some music!

The album kicks off with three great tunes, which so far are my favorite tracks: All This Music Must Fade, Ball And Chain and I Don’t Wanna Get Wise. In addition to the music, some of the lyrics stand out as punchy. On the opener, Daltrey sings, I don’t care, I know you gonna hate this song, and that’s fair, we never really got along/It’s not new, not diverse/It won’t light up your parade/It’s just simple verse…Townshend ends the tune with the words, Yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine/And what’s mine is mine, and what’s mine is yours/Who gives a fuck?

Or take Ball And Chain, a re-recording of a Townshend solo track that initially was called Guantanamo and appeared on his 2015 compilation album Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend: …Down in Guantanamo/We still got the ball and chain/There’s a long road to travel/For justice to make its crane/Let’s bring down the gavel/Let the prisoner say his name

And here’s I Don’t Wanna Get Wise and yet another lyrics excerpt, which may be an eye-opener to some folks: …That the crap that we did/Brought us money, God bless/And those snotty young kids/Were a standing success/ Helped us conquer and rise/And we learned in this hell/We didn’t wanna get wise/(I don’t wanna get wise/I don’t wanna get wise)/Life teaches us well

While I’ll Be Back, one of the quieter songs on the album, may not be among the best tunes, it proves that Townshend still has a decent voice – and that Daltrey is a credible harmonica player.

The last track I’d like to highlight is another standout: Rockin’ In Rage, which has a bit of theatrical/musical vibe to it. Daltrey is on fire here vocally, while Townshend throws in some nice rock guitar chops.

“I think we’ve made our best album since Quadrophenia in 1973,” said Daltrey in a statement. “Pete hasn’t lost it, he’s still a fabulous songwriter, and he’s still got that cutting edge”. While Quadrophenia dates back a mighty 46 years, that statement rings true to me.

Added Townshend: “There is no theme, no concept, no story, just a set of songs that I (and my brother Simon) wrote to give Roger Daltrey some inspiration, challenges and scope for his newly revived singing voice. Roger and I are both old men now, by any measure, so I’ve tried to stay away from romance, but also from nostalgia if I can.”

Without meaning to be Debbie Downer here, unless Messrs. Townshend and Daltrey rapidly accelerate their rate of releasing new records, it’s safe to assume WHO is the band’s final album. Well, if it is, I think they are going out on a high note!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; UNCUT; NME; USA Today; The Who website; YouTube

The Who Rock New York, Backed By Symphonic Orchestra

Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson opens with captivating set

Last year, I read several stories about Roger Daltrey being pretty candid about aging, saying he’d stop performing if he realized his voice was no longer up to par. While other music artists haven’t followed through on similar retirement talk and The Who previously suggested their 50th anniversary tour could be their last, Daltrey’s above comments felt genuine to me. When I learned about Moving On! tour, I got a ticket right away, thinking this may well be my third and last time to see one of my favorite British bands. But there was one detail that I somehow had completely missed. Apart from traditional touring musicians, Moving On! features local symphonic orchestras backing Daltrey and Pete Townshend. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have jumped to get a ticket, had I known that.

In general, the thought of combining a rock band with a symphonic orchestra gives me mixed feelings. One can easily picture that the former gets drowned out by the latter or that the music becomes overly massive and feels overproduced. On the other hand, The Who are known for a grandiose sound. So did the combination work Monday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City? For the most part it did for me, so my initial ignorance about the details of the tour wasn’t a bad thing after all.

Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend

Before getting to The Who, I’d like to say a few words about New York singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson, who performed a captivating opening set. In 2009, following the release of her second album Swan Feathers, Mendelson was compared to Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones, and her record was nominated for a Grammy. Then a series of setbacks stopped her upward trajectory, but things seem to look more promising again for Mendelson these days. A new album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, is almost done. She’s currently raising money through Kickstarter to support promotion for a planned autumn release.

Monday night, Mendelson was accompanied by her longtime collaborator Steve McEwan, a British songwriter and musician, who played a vintage-looking electric guitar and provided backing vocals. Since I wanted to conserve my aging smartphone battery, unfortunately, I didn’t take any footage, but here’s a clip of The Hardest Part, a single from the new record, captured last December at a much smaller venue. The guy in the clip is McEwan. I’m pretty impressed with Mendelson and plan to do a separate post on her in the near future.

After a short intermission it was time for The Who! The first section of their show was with orchestra and mostly focused on songs from Tommy, The Who’s first rock opera from May 1969 – an appropriate choice, as the album nears its 50th anniversary of release on May 23. It started with the record’s first five tracks: Overture, It’s A Boy, 1921, Amazing Journey and Sparks. This was followed by Pinball Wizard and We’re Not Gonna Take It.  The remainder of the first section featured tunes from various other albums, including Who Are You (Who Are You, 1978), Eminence Front (It’s Hard, 1982),  Imagine A Man (The Who By Numbers, 1975) and the non-album single Join Together (1972). Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, the final track from Tommy, which like most Who songs was written by Townshend.

The middle section of the concert featured The Who only. Daltrey jokingly pointed out that union rules required the orchestra to take a break and now it was only the band, “so we can fuck up things even more.” The section consisted of five songs: Non-album single Substitute (1966), I Can See For Miles (The Who Sell Out, 1967),  Won’t Get Fooled Again and Behind Blue Eyes (both Who’s Next, 1971) and Tea & Theatre (Endless Wire, 2006). Here is I Can See For Miles.

Perhaps the highlight of the section was an acoustic rendition of Won’t Get Fooled Again. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture it, in part to conserve battery, but here’s a clip from the tour opener in Madison, Wis. Even though the camera person was much closer to the stage than I was, the MSG performance felt more dynamic, so I feel the footage doesn’t do it full justice. Or maybe it was the excitement of the moment!

The third and last section of the show, which saw the return of the orchestra, almost entirely focused on Quadrophenia. The Who’s second rock opera perhaps is the album that best lends itself to the use of symphonic orchestration. It’s the band’s only record that was entirely composed by Pete Townshend. Here’s section opener The Real Me, one of favorite Who tunes.

Other tracks from Quadrophenia included I’m One, The Punk And The Godfather, 5:15, Drowned, The Rock and the mighty Love, Reign O’er Me. Of course, I couldn’t resist recording the last track, so here it is.

By the time I had Love, Reign O’er Me in the can, my phone battery was on life support, so I couldn’t capture the show’s finale, Baba O’Riley, another tune from the Who’s Next album. Luckily somebody else who was there did, so I’m borrowing their clip – thanks, “ForgottenNYC”! Check out the solo by amazing lead violonist Katie Jacoby, which starts at around 3:40 min – that woman stole the show from Townshend, at least temporarily!

Monday night saw Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in excellent shape. Daltrey still commands the stage, singing with a strong voice and swinging his microphone like a mad man, while Townshend continues to be a kickass windmilling rock guitarist. One could almost forget these guys are in their mid-70s! I think they also deserve credit for continuing to push the envelope at this stage in their careers, when they could have played it safe instead of bringing in a symphonic orchestra. The fans including myself would have been perfectly happy with a “regular” performance.

I must also mention the great backing band: Simon Townshend (guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Pete’s younger brother; Zak Starkey (drums), son of Ringo Starr, who has been The Who’s touring drummer since 1996; Loren Gold (keyboards, backing vocals), and one of the standouts in addition to Jacoby; and Jon Button (bass).

Upcoming dates for the Moving On! tour include Noblesville, Ind (May 18); Tinley Park, Ill (May 21); St. Louis (May 23); Philadelphia (May 25); and Detroit (May 28). The full schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Leslie Mendelson website, The Who website, YouTube