August 26, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
My handy copy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "nostalgia" as "a
wistful yearning for something past or irrecoverable."
On one level, the Who's performance Saturday night before a nearly
sold-out crowd at the Tweeter Center definitely fit that bill. The "newest"
song the group played ("Eminence Front") was 20 years old. And with drummer
Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle dead, the creative nub of the classic
lineup is certainly now "irrecoverable."
But rare is the rock oldies show as vital as the Who's.
Throughout a 140-minute performance, the band challenged itself to push
familiar material to a new level of intensity, to prove that songs that are
now rich with irony (whether it's because they've been tainted by use in TV
commercials, or because many of the fans singing along about a "teenage
wasteland" and how they hope they die before they get old are now in their
mid-50s) still mean something.
When the 57-year-old Entwistle died in Las Vegas the night before the
tour started (apparently as the result of a wild night of sex and drugs that
his heart condition couldn't abide), Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey could
be accused of callous indifference and barely disguised greed in canceling a
mere two shows before resuming the lucrative trek.
So much for a mate who'd been with them for four decades.
But while one can't entirely discount those motives, after seeing the
show, it seems they felt they still had something to prove.
The argument that continuing the tour is a "tribute" to Entwistle is
nonsense--his role was acknowledged only by a brief video montage that
preceded the encore; his replacement, Pino Palladino, was barely audible in
the mix, and Townshend actually made two rather snarky remarks about the
bass giant, noting that he was now floating somewhere above Las Vegas
spending even more money (Entwistle was reportedly deep in debt when he
died), and the other that his voice was shot, so the band had already
recruited Pete's brother Simon to sing backing vocals before they had to
replace the Ox on bass as well.
No, this show wasn't about Entwistle. Nor did it seem to be about loyalty
to the Who's peer-group road crew (who were counting on the tour income, but
whom Daltrey angrily disparaged for screwing up the mix--more about that odd
moment in a second).
This show was about Pete and Roger refusing to go gently into that good
Both men were in peak form. Townshend's guitar playing has rarely been so
inspired or so fiery. While tunes such as "Baba O'Reilly," "You Better You
Bet" and "5:15" have been staples of many past reunion shows, their author
took them someplace new and exciting Saturday with his incendiary guitar
Meanwhile, the preternaturally well-preserved Daltrey proudly displayed a
washboard stomach and a weightlifter's physique as he reveled in the joys of
flexing a voice that, amazingly, has lost none of its range or power.
Daltrey also did something I've never seen any '60s icon do. When
squealing feedback from the monitors threw him off his game and made him
forget the words to the middle section of "Love, Reign O'er Me," after
chewing out the monitor mixer, he demanded that the band play the song again
in its entirety.
On the one hand, this petulant outburst derailed the momentum of the set.
On the other, it was refreshing evidence that the Who, unlike peers from
Ozzy Osbourne to Paul McCartney, was not simply playing along to a
computer-timed program and following lyrics as they scrolled past on a
TelePrompTer. This was a band that was living in the moment, with all of the
pros and cons that entails.
The Who circa 2002 may still simply be the very best of many Who cover
bands. But the best they were. (And one final shout-out is due Zak Starkey,
whose playing was the other highlight of the set. Ringo's kid has truly
settled into a groove, shaking off the intimidation he showed during earlier
treks to evoke the spirit of Moon while making his own mark as a powerful
and inventive drummer, more so than Kenny Jones ever did.)
Alas, the fire the Who displayed was sadly missing in Robert Plant as he
started the night with an hour-long opening set.
The former Led Zeppelin vocalist is touring behind a strong and ambitious
album, "Dreamland," that explores the psychedelic folk music he has always
held close to his heart. But Plant felt he had to pander to the arena-rock
crowd--something he's rarely done in solo performances, and which he
certainly didn't do at the Riviera Theatre last year.
The singer his old band called "Percy" peppered his set with Zep nuggets
("Celebration Day," "Going to California," "Four Sticks") that he didn't
seem especially inspired to sing, and which showed the limitations that time
has imposed on his voice. And while it was well-suited to play the more
nuanced, ethereal material from "Dreamland" (the tune "Morning Dew" was
especially powerful), his band offered only a pale imitation of Zep during
the Zep songs.
The result was a show that worked neither as nostalgia (like Jimmy Page's
jaunt with the Black Crowes) nor as a step forward (like many of Plant's
solo outings in the past).