Friday, March 18, 2016

Wayne Hears a Who

For all the live concerts I’ve gone to in my life, and there are more than a few, I haven’t seen a lot of the big name classic rock bands. I spent a lot of years in smaller venues seeing smaller acts and actively skipped some big names. I have some regrets about this, but it’s where my head was at the time.

Until Wednesday, March 16 I had never seen The Who. If I was going to wait, I caught a good one. This is their 50 Years of the Who Greatest Hits Tour, though I think the anniversary was last year. This show was rescheduled from a cancelled date last fall.

My confession here is that I was really never that big of a fan of The Who. Now, before Who Heads jump all over me, let me explain. I never disliked them. I just never got really into them like I’m known to do with bands and artists. I’m not sure why. But they’ve been omnipresent for as long as I’ve listened to music, so it’s not like I’ve been unaware of their work. In the intervening years I’ve picked up most of their albums and become very familiar with them.

I was too young to have caught the earliest British Invasion era of The Who. I probably saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid. It was on pretty religiously when I was growing up and I have vague memories of seeing bands, but none that I specifically remember.

For some reason when I was a tween I bought a copy of a magazine about the movie version of the Who album Tommy. I had never heard the album at that time, and wouldn’t see the actual movie for another fifteen years or more. But for some reason, probably because of the amazingly weird visuals of that film, I was kind of obsessed with it for awhile.

Not my actual copy, but this is it.

I’m pretty sure it was because of Elton John. I was getting into Elton at the time, mainly because of the rock mag pictures I had seen of his outrageous costumes. I liked the singles I had heard by the that point as well and owned 45s of Rocket Man and Bennie and the Jets.

In the movie Elton played the part of the Pinball Wizard. I was hearing his version of the song on the radio. I was much more aware of Elton than The Who at this point, so much so that I don’t think I even realized it was a cover of someone else’s song. Dumb kid. I went out to buy the single, grabbed a copy of Pinball Wizard, brought it home and put it on my record player...

And it wasn’t Elton singing. It was some other version. When I looked I saw it was by The Who and I had picked up the wrong version by mistake. Okay, I can now say that I realize it was the right version, but at the time my disappointment may have played a part in my never getting more into them.

Not many years later I picked up a copy of Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy, which I now know was a Greatest Hits compilation of The Who’s early singles. I liked it a lot, but had trouble reconciling these songs with the radio hits I was hearing in the mid to late 70s. I think coming at the band from all of these different angles prevented them from gelling in my mind as a cohesive concept.

In 1979 there was a terrible tragedy at a Who concert in Cincinnati where eleven fans were killed and eight others hurt. It would be an overstatement to say I was almost at the show, but there was a short-lived possibility I could have been. My friend Howard and I had gone to number of concerts around that time, at least one of which was a spur of the moment, day of the show decision. I remember we discussed making a road trip to Cincinnati for the show. It was probably a less than fifteen minute fantasy because it was too far away at the time and it was winter and our parents would have lost their minds, and I only remember the conversation because of what happened, and my reaction when I saw it on the news the following day.

So, finally, thirty-seven years later, I finally saw The Who... half of the original band anyway. It was an amazing show. Roger Daltry’s voice is still really strong and very powerful. Pete Townsend was just consummate on guitar. I know, intellectually, how good he is, but to hear it live while watching him was something of a revelation.

The performance was strong and I enjoyed the songs and music a lot. But some of that was my awareness of the history represented on that stage. These two men are two of the architects of modern Rock and Roll. They helped invent the lexicon of the live rock show. When Townsend windmilled his arm I saw the entire history of The Who in that movement. The same thing when Daltry swung the microphone around by its cord. I’ve seen this a million times. It’s in the DNA of Rock and of Rock fans. These guys played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. They stood on the stage at Woodstock. They have known all of the legends of Rock as friends and peers. Fifty years of being The Who, spanning most of the history of the art form and having stood on its spires. Fifty years of embodying a Pop Culture mythology. Enormous legends living in the fragile shells of human beings.

I want to take a moment to talk about the opening act, because I was really impressed. For the original date Joan Jett was listed as the the opener, which made me pretty excited. But, since the show had to be rescheduled, Jett wasn’t able to do the make-up dates. I was disappointed until I saw who was taking her place.

Tal Wilkenfeld is a 20-something bass guitar prodigy. I first saw her as Jeff Beck’s bass player on a televised concert. She kind of blew me away. I have a fondness for the bass anyway, and here was this obviously very young woman with a mass of curly red hair, playing the hell out of a bass guitar that was nearly bigger than she was, holding her own with one of the acknowledged guitar gods. She has racked up a pretty impressive resume. In addition to Beck she has played with Jackson Browne, Hrebie Hancock, and a bunch of other name artists.

Her first CD, Transformation, is an instrumental jazz album where her skills are evident. I don’t listen to a whole lot of jazz or instrumentals, but I kept coming back to this. At the concert I was surprised to hear her sing. She has a very strong voice, and while it seems she is moving away from the jazz stylings into a more singer/songwriter rock direction, her playing wasn’t in the least diminished or hidden in the mix.

I’ve included three videos below. There aren’t a whole lot of good ones of her singing out there yet (apparently this past November was her first show as a vocalist). The first is from an Australian TV show, so it’s a little weirdly formatted, but it’s a good example of her playing. The second is her from a recent Who show. The third is one of her singing Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel, which is a song I love, so I had to include it.

Classic Rock and brand new music. It was a good night to be a fan.

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