There’s one thing to be said about arena concerts. They’re punctual. The Pretenders started right at the stroke of 7:30, just like it said on the ticket. We shouldered our way through the crowd trying to find our seats as The Pretenders dug in with opener “The Wait.” I really need to learn how to buy tickets to Qwest shows. I thought we would be sitting along the edge of the first balcony, plenty high over the crowd, looking down over the stage. Instead, the 75-year-old usher pointed us to the very bottom row, essentially a step up from the floor seats. I hate floor seats because people stand up the entire time, which means you have to stand up, too. And since our seats were basically floor seats, that meant we’d have to stand up all night, or at least for The Who portion of the show.
No one stood up during The Pretenders set even though Chrissie Hynde and her band probably sounded no different then they did during their ’80s heyday. Wearing a crazy top-hat, elbow gloves and leg warmers, the 55-year-old Hynde tore through a set of the usual oldies, songs whose names I don’t know because I was never much of a Pretenders fan. The only time the crowd got into it was during “My City Was Gone,” where a few folks did a modified bump-and-grind in their seats. Thankfully, it was hard to see with the lights out, the only thing illuminating the arena was the stage and a giant “Pirate Radio” skull-and-crossbones logo that hung over the stage.
The Prentenders played for just under an hour and did no encore. When the lights came up I finally got a look at the crowd. Just about every seat was filled (the upper tier had been curtained off), and I realized I was in the presence of the hippy culture. Not the lazy slobs and college kids who drive around the country following Phish or Widespread Panic — these were real hippies, the original hippies, the pot-baked, acid-caked youth of the ’60s who remember listening to “I Can See for Miles” while driving to a commune in a peace-sign-festooned VW Microbus. Those peace signs are long gone now, replaced with tacky yellow ribbon car magnets; the microbuses replaced with Lexi. The hippies have been transformed into bankers and principals and aging soccer coaches that would look just as home at a Bluejays home game. Sure, there were a few of them who had kept up their hippy charisma, but somewhere along the way, hippy chic had turned into biker chic, complete with leather vests and Sturgis T-shirts. Then there was the infirm. This might be the first concert I’ve been to where paramedics rushed an aged fan away in a wheel chair while an old lady with an eye-patch looked on, concerned. Unlike the typical indie show, we were easily among the youngest 20 percent of the audience. Nice!
And so, at around 8, The Who finally took the stage — and what an elaborate stage it was. Like any typical arena show these days, huge screens were placed above the stage to allow fans in the back to get a good look at Roger Daltrey’s bloated, sweaty face. Roger struggled the entire evening. After the first song, my partner in crime turned to me and said, “He sounds horrible,” but I knew he hadn’t lost his pipes because he sounded fine on their new record (though they can do wonders in the studio these days). It was after the fourth song that Pete Townshend told the crowd that Roger was suffering with a horrible cold, but “would do his best to get through it.”
“It’ll better as we go,” Roger said.
But it never really did. You could hear the layers of mucus in Daltrey’s throat bubble up in a hoarse cackle during the first line of every song. High notes were completely out of the question, as were Daltrey’s signature screams (though he managed to pull one off during the peak of “Baba O’Riley”). Meanwhile, Townshend never looked, sounded or performed better. He may be one of the more under-appreciated guitarists in rock history, especially considering what I saw last night — just some amazing stuff, complete with his trademark windmill riffing.
It’s no surprise that the crowd preferred hearing the old classics vs. songs off Endless Wire. The band knew this, though they played just about every song off the record, including a rushed, medley version of “Wire & Glass,” the CD’s “mini-opera.” The crowd was respectful, if patient, often sitting down during unfamiliar songs, only to stand up again when they heard the chiming opening chords of another classic. It’s easy to forget just how big The Who’s repertoire is until you consider the songs that they didn’t play over the course of the two-hour concert. Among the missing were “Squeeze Box,” “Magic Bus,” “Long Live Rock,” and “I Can See for Miles.” But all the really big ones were there, “My Generation,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “You Better You Bet,” “Eminence Front,” “Who Are You,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “My Generation,” and opener “I Can’t Explain.” Throughout the set, five large movable screens presented a variety of edgy support graphics. Sometimes they were set up in an unbroken chain end-to-end to providing pano-like images. Other times they were broken up, each showing a different image, while the large screens above the stage focused on Daltrey or Townshend or the rest of the band, which, by the way, was pretty good. I’m sure die-hard fans think Entwhistle is irreplaceable, but Pino Palladino did just fine. The drummer, Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey, however, was no Keith Moon, (though he wore a striped T-shirt just like Keith’s). And though Who concerts are legendary for being ultra LOUD, this one wasn’t. Ear plugs seemed unnecessary. Maybe the band (and especially Townscend) realize that the crowd has out-grown teeth-rattling performances.
After about an hour and a half, the band left the stage, only to return for an encore that included a medley of songs from Tommy, Daltrey gasping to get through “Pinball Wizard,” while Townshend absolutely shined on a raucous version of “Underture” that was the night’s highlight. It was definitely worth the price of admission, though I couldn’t help but wonder how much better it would have been had Daltrey been in better shape…
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The weekend’s looking this way:
— Tonight at O’Leaver’s, Darren Keen takes the stage with Talkin Mountain and Family Unit. $5, 9:30 p.m.
— Saturday night is Danny Pound Band with 4th of July at The Saddle Creek Bar. $5, 9 p.m. Meanwhile, down at O’Leaver’s its Outlaw Con Bandana with Black Squirrels and Kickass Tarantulas.
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