One of the many telling moments in last night’s grand nostalgia ride by The Who at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, a show dominated by its 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, came within the opening minutes. There, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the band’s surviving members, played The Real Me against huge projected images of their former, more youthful selves. As if undertaking a complete performance of a mammoth work that is nearly four decades old wasn’t enough, the Who chieftains, both on the cusp of 70, pitted themselves against equally visual representations of the past. Find “the real me” in that.
For the most part, though, Daltrey and Townshend were up to the task. By doubling the lineup The Who has toured with for roughly 15 years to 10 musicians (three keyboard players and a two man horn section were the additions), Quadrophenia came to life with bold, orchestral color. As such, the key ingredients usually downplayed (or missing altogether) when the band has taken this music to the stage before – specifically, piano, synthesizers and brass – – were in rich display, from the horns that drove 5:15 (truly one of rock music’s great mass transit songs) to the regal synths unveiled for the finale of Love Reign O’er Me.
The two lost Who members – drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978) and bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002) – made video cameos, further pitting the present day Who against the past. Entwistle was featured in a lengthy bass solo at the end of 5:15 that was played in tandem with the very spirited live battering of present day Who drummer Zak Starkey. Moon “returned” to sing the refrain of Bellboy. One of the performance’s most genuinely moving turns came when the video screens captured a beaming smile from the live Daltrey during Moon’s video rampage.
Vocally, the Who is a pretty ragged bunch these days. Daltrey seemed to know his limits and skirted the higher notes and most of the screaming crescendos. Townshend, when he remained in the light mid register he normally sang in, was fine. For some reason, though, he often reached downward for lower, guttural expression – a sort of bluesman’s bravura. When he did, his singing simply flatlined. Younger brother Simon Townshend played rhythm guitar and helped flesh out several ensemble harmonies. He also took a mighty vocal lead on one of Quadrophenia’s great unsung (and most restless) anthems, I’ve Had Enough.
The 2 ¼ hour performance – performed without intermission or encore (leaving, as Townshend put it, “no time for coffee and biscuits”) – wound down with a very capable run of five true Who hits (Who Are You, Behind Blue Eyes, Pinball Wizard, a still-rapturous Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Get Fooled Again). But the show closer was a surprise, an acoustic version of Tea and Theatre from 2006’s Endless Wire, the only new studio album released by The Who since 1982. The song pared the band to just its two leaders for a weary but affectionate reverie.
Quadrophenia was the feast – and a satisfying one, too. But Tea and Theatre was the after dinner cigar, a quiet conversation piece between The Who’s glorious past and its more grizzled but content present.
Big thumbs up also to opening act Vintage Trouble, an energetic, upbeat Southern California foursome with a singer (Ty Taylor) that dispensed James Brown-level vocals and stage moves and a three man rhythm section that countered his soul demeanor with ‘70s arena rock chops. Definitely a band to keep an ear out for.