For many of the North American dates of their current 2017 tour, coined “Tommy and More,” The Who is playing a handful of theaters with capacities of but a few thousand. And the lucky 3,000 who attended Tuesday night’s show at the MGM National Harbor’s Theater in Oxon Hill, Maryland, experienced the arena-size show in the smallest venue of the entire tour.
Back in the day, the Who started off as a bar band, so perhaps this small setting allowed the English musicians to relive those early days. And the band seems to enjoy the intimacy. Having kicked off the tour just two nights prior, playing large outdoor venues both nights, lead guitarist Pete Townshend said during last night’s show: “It’s nice to be playing inside. The last few shows were tough. I couldn’t hear myself.”
Now that he could hear himself, it’s obvious Mr. Townshend came to play with a vengeance. His guitar work on “5:15,” “The Rock,” and snippet of “Cry if You Want” during “My Generation” was jaw-dropping, and the 72-year-old became so wrapped up in his playing during “Eminence Front,” on which he sings lead, that he even missed one of his own chorus parts.
And while watching Mr. Townshend play guitar anywhere live is great, he truly seemed to lose himself in such an intimate setting like The Theater. All these years later, he still makes playing guitar look effortless.
Lead singer Roger Daltrey was as charged up as his bandmate, definitely feeding off the energy of the crowd in such a small space. He repeatedly put the mic to the crowd, entreating them to accompany the band on “Join Together” and “You Better You Bet.”
Mr. Daltrey was in fine rock ‘n’ roll voice — one that probably shattered a few glasses in the bar outside The Theater during major points in “Bargain,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and especially, “Love Reign O’er Me.” Mr. Daltrey’s continues to make you wonder how he’s maintained such an immense sound over the years. At times, he would lean backwards and let loose that impeccable roar.
The big change for “Tommy and More” was the addition of bassist Jon Button after Pino Palladino, who’d been with the band since the death of original bassist John Entwistle in 2002, left the band last year. Mr. Button has also toured with Eric Clapton and Mr. Daltrey’s solo bands in the past.
Mr. Townshend’s brother, Simon, still plays with the band, as does drummer Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr. For the younger Mr. Townshend, it’s obvious the guitar talent runs in the family as he played acoustic so fast on songs like “Bargain” that his hand was a blur.
Mr. Starkey is coming closer and closer to being the reincarnation of his godfather, original Who drummer Keith Moon, at least in terms of his drum style. (Fun fact: “Uncle Keith,” who died in 1978, gave Mr. Starkey one of his first drum kits when he was just 8 years old.) Sporting a Lee “Scratch” Perry t-shirt, Mr. Starkey sat high on the stage behind a drum shield. Watching him unleash sheer fury on those floor toms was a sight to behold indeed.
The highlight of the night was definitely “The Rock,” from “Quadrophenia.” The instrumental was backed by a visual timeline of famous musical and political events from recent history, such as a newspaper announcing the death of John Lennon, pictures of Ronald Regan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, live footage of The Clash, Princess Diana’s funeral and Occupy Wall Street protesters. The Townshend brothers wailing off each other during the montage was loud and wonderful to witness at its climax.
“Has anybody here read my memoir?” Pete Townshend said at one point. He then proceeded to tell an anecdote from the book, titled “Who I Am,” about the band playing small clubs during their formative days. “A well-dressed bloke would be there nudging his gorgeous girlfriend to come ask us to play ‘Please Please Me’ by The Beatles, to which I used to turn up my Marshall stacks and tell them” no way, Mr. Townshend said.
“It’s like at this gig: You could tell me what to play, and I’d tell you” no yet again, he joked.
If there is one criticism of “Tommy and More,” it’s that the setlist hasn’t changed much since the 50th Anniversary tour of 2014-16. Much of Tuesday evening’s program was identical to when the band played at Verizon Center last year. And with so many major anthems in such a storied discography over 50-plus years, it’s easy to just stick to the hits, but perhaps that was what they think the audience wants.
But The Who, with their inventiveness, should not become the traveling oldies show. With so many just-as-amazing popular-but-not-level songs like “Who Are You,” it would be nice to hear a deeper delve into the catalog upon their next time out.
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