File Photo Courtesy of the band
For a moment, I worried the 71-year-old Roger Daltrey had hurt his back.
Half an hour into The Who’s show at Raleigh’s PNC Arena, the fourth stop on what’s being billed as the band’s farewell American run
, Daltrey leaned deep into the microphone for the start of “My Generation.” He shouted the first few lines of the youthful tirade like someone several decades younger, as Pete Townshend volleyed the song’s responses from his left. But just as Daltrey hit the all-important and now all-ironic line “I hope I die before I get old,” he slipped his right hand just above his hip and held it there off and on throughout much of the song. How would he make it through the night’s next 90 minutes?
After watching Daltrey sneak his hand to his back several more times during the next few numbers, I decided he must have been adjusting the volume of the in-ear microphones that let him hear the remainder of the seven-piece Who. With his sculpted chest made visible by a progressively unbuttoned black, collared shirt, Daltrey certainly didn’t move any less. During the next 13 songs, he even upped his routine of twirling the microphone by its cord or holding its stand out toward the crowd, encouraging them truly to join the band for “Join Together” or “Pinball Wizard.” Townshend, too, worked like a pinball, bounding about the stage and adding his trademark guitar windmills for the first song, the last song and most in between.
But the anxious moment with Daltrey provided a stark reminder that The Who teeters now on geriatric status. They turned 50 as a band two years ago. The band’s real rhythm section is dead. Townshend and Daltrey lead a militia of hired sidemen that includes a “musical director,” Ringo Starr’s son, Zak
Starkey, on drums and the electric guitarist’s younger brother, Simon, on acoustic accompaniment and backing vocals.
Still, they were a scripted and precise ensemble, pushing through 20 of The Who’s hits in about two hours, breaking only for Townshend to share a story about his youth or to make jokes about how he, like the material the band played, wasn’t getting any younger. They delivered the harmonies of “Magic Bus” with strange jubilation and emerged from the synthesizer dance of “Eminence Front” into the roil of a swaggering rock band. During show highlight “Love, Reign O’er Me,” The Who brought the full weight of their production to bear, with pianos and electronics and graphics adding a theatric power to the already-arching anthem. Pino Palladino rumbled the bassline of “My Generation” wonderfully, and Starkey danced and pounded behind the kit as needed. The septet offered glimpses of Quadrophenia
and even slogged through all of “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” temporarily losing the bulk of the crowd in the process.
In fact, those flirtations with the rock operas of The Who’s youth were the moments when age really began to catch up with the band in Raleigh. They seemed sluggish for “A Quick One.” The potency of a suite of Tommy
tracks—“Amazing Journey,” “Sparks” and “Pinball Wizard”—seemed as dependent on the complicated graphics on the screens behind the band than their actual performance. The medley effect seemed to wear on Daltrey; by the time the band hit the final two numbers, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” his voice had all but collapsed. Townshend’s background vocals even eclipsed those of the frontman, like one old friend helping usher another to the end of a marathon.
In 2009, Daltrey played the Durham Performing Arts Center with his own backing band. It was a modest production, a stand-and-deliver affair that emphasized both the singer’s strength and candor. Despite being in a seated theater, it somehow felt more like a rock ’n’ roll gig than last night’s, bound as it was to the abilities and expectations of one person and not a large touring show with ornate graphics, programmed lights and tightly controlled setlists. By evening’s end, with Daltrey straining to make it out with his voice intact, I felt a little sorry for him, his withering tone drowned out by the very machine it had helped create.
All songs done, he and Townshend stood at center stage, waving and thanking the crowd for being there, for being great and for being The Who fans for so many years. It was a sweet note to stave off the final bit of sour, a human concession for a retiring maximum R&B machine.