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Roger Daltrey presents The Who’s Tommy

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It was a long piece, but I knew if we could get to the “Listening to You” chorus, we’d be all right. We’d have them.

—Pete Townshend on performing Tommy

The raison d’être for Roger Daltrey’s latest tour—apart from his continued desire to keep performing for as long as he possibly can—is to present the Tommy album live in a way The Who never did: Playing the entire thing, in order, with the full complement of harmonies and keyboards and everything included on that iconic album.

Witnessing this Friday night, it became clear that there are a few problems with that approach. The original album is sequenced a bit weirdly, both story-wise and musically. And even with the dropping long, instrumental “Underture”, it’s quite long. So while you would certainly build and gain momentum through some sequences: 1921, Amazing Journey, Sparks, Christmas… Or particularly, Pinball Wizard, Tommy Can You Hear Me, Smash the Mirror… Momentum would then somewhat be lost by the necessity of then performing a lesser track like Sensation or Sally Simpson.

(“Is this still Tommy?” Jean asked, about three-quarters of the way through.)

That said, there was still plenty to enjoy about the live performance of this opera, and it wasn’t all the expected stuff. Like, for example, seeing Roger Daltrey, for the first time (that I know of) taking on the villain’s roles in “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About”. He seemed to really relish those two roles (maybe nice to finally not be the in Tommy/victim role), and sank his acting chops into the interpretation. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed either of those songs more.

Tommy under Cousin Kevin's foot

30 years after being under Cousin Kevin’s boot, Daltrey finally gets to turn the table

Another surprise was just how enjoyable the silly little “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” song was—possibly because it is perhaps the only giddy moment in this rather grim little opera. It was totally fun.

And the songs you expected to be great… Really were great. Last time I saw Roger in concert, the microphone twirling was very limited and approached rather gingerly. But clearly the old man’s been practicing, because it was whipping around like nobody’s business during “Pinball Wizard” and the finale. It was impressive. See:

And speaking of that finale… I’ve seen many videotaped versions of The Who leading the crowd toward what seems an almost religious experience after Roger Daltrey sings the “See Me / Feel Me” chorus for the last time, and then everyone joins in on the “Listening to you / I get the music” chorus. But I’d never participated in that. And this crowd was fantastic. The second that moment came around, everyone was on their feet, rushing the stage, pumping their fists, singing along… It looked, sounded, and felt amazing. The ovation at the end was huge. Daltrey appeared really touched by it.

But how was the voice?

Last time I’d heard Daltrey perform, two years ago, the voice was not good. He’d even had to cancel some performances. So I felt grateful to have seen him perform at all. But that whole show, he was singing through a thick, nearly hoarse, rasp.

It was much, much better this time out. This isn’t to say it was perfect. Despite the humidifier going, the water, the tea, the strictly enforced smoking ban in theatre, the voice did crack on some of the high notes—for example, on the See Me / Feel Me part of “Christmas”. But it sounded beautiful on others — for example, on the See Me / Feel Part of “We’re Not Going to Take It”. And in the lower ranges, there were no issues at all.

(By the way, entire tour performances available from I hear can now confirm that the Altanta show was particularly good – no voice cracking. )

The concert, Part 2

The second half of the show featured a variety of songs among the now rather large catalog Roger and his band have rehearsed. And where the Tommy had some unavoidable lulls, the second half was nothing but highlights, including (but not limited to):

  • A bluesy version of “My Generation”
  • A lovely take on my favorite Who song, “Behind Blue Eyes”
  • The Simon Townshend spotlight song, “Going Mobile”
  • An incendiary version of “Young Man’s Blues” (which Roger seems to love the irony of singing, now that he is the old man with all the money), complete with some highly showy microphone twirling, and integrations of the relatively rare Who track called “Water”.

Also fun was his solo track, “Days of Light”. And on “Baba O’Riley”, when he unbuttoned his shirt all the way (as the Toronto Sun’s [female] writer said, “it was an impressive display.” It’s not normal to get even more fit and muscular as you age, is it?), raised his arm, and his full head of hair was backlit, you were definitely reminded that this was the iconic rock God of the seventies, right there, right now, still.

Roger Daltrey - Baba O'Riley

Still a rock god

We want to be on stage, but we don’t want to be on a pedestal. We’re like you. I’m like you. That’s what this song says to me.

— Roger Daltrey, Toronto, September 30, 2011

Since I knew that the playlist for the second half varied from night to night, I was trying not to get my hopes up about any particular song being performed. But in truth, there is one I really wanted to hear: “Without Your Love”. [Because I’m a sap!] I was not to be disappointed on that front. He did a lovely job with it.

After that, he explained that they had a strict time limit for this particular performance, and performed one last song, the lovely “Red Blue and Grey”. I was feeling slightly miffed at apparently getting a shortened show, but you know, the thing started before 8:00 (with a quite good opening act), Roger and band took the stage somewhere between 8:30 and 8:45, and it was nearly 11:00 when it was over. No breaks.

I supposed 2-2.5 hours is a reasonable length of concert for a 67-year-old man who just had throat surgery.

Our seats

Though I tried not to fret overly much before attending this concert, one thing I did wonder about a bit was just how good our seats were, really. Turns out, they were really very good. We were in the fifth row, and though not right in the center, you could see everything really well. The only problem, really, is that is not very good seats for taking pictures and video. There was always a light right behind Roger’s head, which just washed out his face on film.

Roger Daltrey photo

One photo that didn’t turn out too badly

Fortunately, there were hundreds taking pictures and video there, so I’m not going to be deprived of that.

We did get talking to people before the show started. The guy beside us was kind of funny, as he didn’t seem entirely sure what he was about to see. And his question about how much the seat cost confused me a bit as well. Maybe he won his in in a contest? But, turns out he’d bought tickets from a scalper minutes before, so that explained that. He was a very friendly American from Florida, who’d last seen The Who perform around 1979.

And the people in the row in front us of turned out to be from Waterloo as well. But they’d bought their tickets on Tuesday! This Tuesday! Ticketmaster, I bought my tickets the day they went on sale. Why did these people get better ones, four days before the show? (They said it wasn’t from a reseller or anything.)

[Almost forgot about some lady behind us—apparently not such a big fan—who was nearly freaking out at having been told how long the show would be. Kind of funny.]

Anyway. The important thing is I was really close to Roger Daltrey again, and in fact, even managed to go stand right in front of the stage by evening’s end. (Even though we didn’t make eye contact this time.)

The band

The set list was actually somewhat similar to that of the 2009 Use It or Lose It tour, but it sure has acquired a professional sheen on this tour. In introducing his band, Roger said that they were “the best band I have ever played with.” Now, I don’t know if he’s including The Who among the bands he has played with, but there is no denying he has assembled a fantastic group of musicians here. They provide beautiful backup harmonies throughout, and completely solid musical accompaniment.

I also kind of met them before the show. As I was asking Jean if he remembered seeing what was likely Roger Daltrey’s limo drive past us when were walking over to the Orillia show two years ago [he didn’t], a big limo bus pulled up to the stage entrance of the Sony Centre. So we ambled over to see who would get off. Clearly, we did not meet Mr. Daltrey, or even the young Mr. Townshend. But we did see the keyboard player, and the drummer, and musical director and lead guitarist Frank Simes was particularly nice with all the fans.

Meeting Frank before the show

The famous-only-by-association Frank Simes

Our buddy Frank

Our buddy Frank on stage

The crowd

I’ve already mentioned them a few times, but it was a great crowd. (The place looked sold out to me; I don’t know if it actually was.) Mostly boomers, of course, but a number of them brought their teenage kids, so that made for a nice younger contingent. I could sense (and hear, in all the singalongs) a real diehard Who crowd. Jean, who didn’t have such a constant laser focus on the man onstage, spent more time actually looking at the crowd and enjoying how much they were enjoying it.

And I’ll leave the last words to Jean.

You know, I didn’t hate that. I didn’t hate that at all.

It’s really high praise.

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