It's strange to let 27 years pass before seeing one of your favorite bands again. But somehow, that's how much time had elapsed since the first and, until last weekend, only time I had ever seen The Who.
I hadn't intentionally avoided seeing them again, but over the intervening years, it became less and less of a priority to do so — especially after the death of bassist John Entwistle in 2002 and the release in 2006 of The Who's last studio album, Endless Wire, which was a great record in its own way but felt less like a proper Who album and more like Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey's eulogy for a band that no longer really existed.
Still, I was excited to see Roger and Pete in action again at Desert Trip — maybe more excited about them than any other act on the bill. But I was nervous, too. Twenty-seven years is a long time to mythologize something in your head, and for a good chunk of that time, I had been telling people that The Who at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on July 9, 1989 was the greatest stadium concert I had ever attended. Could the surviving duo, now both in their 70s, possibly live up to all those memories I had been polishing like a pair of bronzed baby shoes for over a quarter-century?
It turns out they could. In fact, in my admittedly biased estimation, they delivered the most thrilling, vital set of the entire Desert Trip weekend. But before I get into that, let me indulge all those bronzed memories for a moment.
In 1989, The Who were already considered an “old” rock band. They were going out on their first tour in seven years to commemorate the band's 25th anniversary. It was dubbed the Kids Are Alright Tour and the name was clearly intended to be somewhat ironic — all three of the band's members, including bassist John Entwistle, were in their 40s.
I, however, was still a kid — a skinny, extremely unworldly 20-year-old, freshly escaped from my own personal teenage wasteland, confused about my future, girls and my awkward transition into young adulthood (but mostly girls). Pete Townshend's songs, with their macho-yet-vulnerable mix of swagger and alienation, gushing romance and brittle cynicism, spoke to me in a way no other rock band's music did at the time. For awhile I played Quadrophenia on repeat, trying to imagine life as a mod, sleeping next to my scooter on the beach in Brighton. So I was, to say the least, pretty stoked for this concert.
There was no opening act so the band played for nearly four hours. They did most of Tommy. They did lots of Pete Townshend's solo stuff, including “Rough Boys,” “Let My Love Open the Door” and “Secondhand Love,” which I would put up against his best work with The Who. Enwistle did “Trick of the Light” and “Boris the Spider” and reminded everyone that his best songs were nearly as good as Pete's. They threw in random covers like Bo Diddley's “I'm a Man” and the Everly Brothers' “Love Hurts,” and even those were great. They had a 15-piece band, including a large horn section, which made tracks like “5:15” sound positively epic.
Before the tour, Townshend announced in the press that his tinnitus had grown so bad he could no longer play electric. I'm sure this disappointed many fans (myself included), but no one could wish ill on an aging rock star struggling with hearing loss. So the crowd at Veterans Stadium cheered just as enthusiastically when Townshend, isolated from the rest of the band to one side of the stage, ripped out the occasional acoustic solo — especially, of course, when he quick-strummed the intro to “Pinball Wizard.”
After a brief intermission, while the stage lights were still down, the familiar opening keyboards and synths of “Eminence Front” rang out through the darkness. They continued for what felt like an eternity, until Simon Phillips' drums rumbled to life and a single spotlight stabbed down onto the stage. There beneath it stood Pete Townshend, playing a red Stratocaster, upon which he proceeded to unleash a rendition of the song's opening solo a thousand times more savage than the studio version.
Sixty thousand Who fans lost their collective shit. It didn't seem like anyone at the Vet had the slightest idea that Townshend would play electric. Looking back now, even in the days before the internet and social media, this seems hard to believe, since the tour had been running for nearly a month. But everyone in my immediate vicinity reacted with the same look of delighted astonishment. It was the sneakiest bit of rock & roll showmanship I have ever seen, the arena-rock equivalent of not showing the shark until the third reel, and it kept every single person at that stadium on their feet for the next two hours.
(For the record, the “concert wiki” website Setlist.fm says The Who didn't play “Eminence Front” at Veterans Stadium in 1989. I suppose my memory could be faulty — it was 27 goddamned years ago, after all — but I'm 99 percent sure that I'm right and Setlist.fm is wrong. I remember for sure that Pete played the second set mostly electric, and Setlist.fm has the band returning to the stage with “Magic Bus,” which makes no sense for electric at all.)
Flash forward 27 years and four months to Oct. 9, 2016. As I'm walking to my seat in the slanting, late-afternoon sun at Desert Trip, The Who take the stage with a viciously fast version of “I Can't Explain.” Both surviving original members look their age, albeit in different ways: Roger Daltrey has the tanned, barrel-chested look of a Palm Spring retiree who swims laps every morning, while Townshend's aquiline nose and receding hairline give him a vaguely professorial air, even when he's vigorously windmilling on that trademark red Strat. Vocally, they both still sound great, even if the high notes are no longer quite there. Townshend's slashing power chords have lost none of their bite, and drummer Zak Starkey, son of Ringo, who's now been with the band longer than Keith Moon, plays with his own nimble version of Moon's chaotic, unhinged style. Even bassist Pino Palladino, who replaced Entwistle after his death in 2002, bears a striking resemblance to “The Ox,” at least visually — standing lanky and almost motionless off to one side, making Entwistle's intricate bass parts look deceptively easy.
“Well,” Townshend gruffly declares after the song ends, “here the fuck we are.”
The Who tore through their 22-song set with such purpose and fury that I assumed it was some kind of Big Statement, a sort of fuck-you to Desert Trip organizers for relegating them to Sunday night “opening act” status, forcing them to begin playing while it was still light out and the weary day-three crowd was doddering back to their seats from the VIP lounges and “culinary experiences.” Unlike every other set at Desert Trip, The Who's two hours contained zero fat, zero filler — just one blow-your-hair-back anthem after another. Even two relatively obscure instrumental tracks, “The Rock” from Quadrophenia and “Sparks” from Tommy, bristled with the band's trademark mix of rock-opera bombast and proto-punk piss and vinegar.
But a quick check of Setlist.fm (which I still mostly trust for more recent concerts) would seem to indicate that Townshend, Daltrey and co. just played their standard set from their current “Back to The Who” tour. So I guess there's something to be said for practice makes perfect. Though I still can't help but think that the famously persnickety Townshend, in particular, played the set's familiar material with an extra-large chip on his shoulder.
None of this is take away anything from Desert Trip's other acts, who were all fantastic in their own ways, as well — even Bob Dylan, despite the general consensus among nearly everyone I spoke to that his mumbly, meandering set was the weekend's weakest. But for me, The Who were the hands-down highlight. They were the only band who succeeded in delivering nostalgia not as some misty-eyed ode to lost youth or the mythologized '60s and '70s, but as an extended middle finger to aging and the passage of time. They made playing the hits feel like an act of defiance. (Neil Young, it must be said, accomplished a similar feat with an astonishing version of “Down by the River” that was even longer and louder than the Crazy Horse original.) Even when they played the hoary “Won't Get Fooled Again” for their finale, it sounded so fresh that the gobsmacked crowd missed Daltrey's cue to get them to sing the title refrain.
Townshend's tributes to his fallen bandmates were, true to form, bracingly free of schmaltz and sop. Of Entwistle, he quipped, “he went out in a blaze of something or other; I don't know if it was glory.” Introducing Starkey, he said, “This guy studied at the feet of the great Keith Moon. What am I saying, the great Keith Moon? Keith Moon, the fantastic wanker.”
I was afraid seeing the 2016 version of The Who would somehow taint or diminish my memory of the 1989 version of The Who. Instead, I came away feeling even more grateful to have seen them “back in the day” and blown away at how well both they and Townshend's brilliant songs have aged. “Eminence Front,” which I was thrilled to hear them play again, is still one of the smartest takes on an overworked rock & roll topic — the hollow narcissism of the ruling classes — ever written. After it was over, Townshend shouted with cheerful sarcasm: “Good luck in the election, folks!” Point made, with no heavy-handed “Trump Is a Pig” projections required. (Sorry, Roger Waters fans.)
Then there's “My Generation,” which contains the lyric most abused by lazy journalists in their coverage of “Oldchella”: “Hope I die before I get old.” Even back in 1989, Daltrey couldn't keep a self-deprecating smirk off his face as he sang it. But on Sunday night, he delivered the line without a trace of irony. At Desert Trip, old age may have been a physical reality that necessitated amenities more youth-oriented festivals forego, like grandstand seating and well-lit bathrooms. But as a state of mind, especially during The Who's blistering, triumphant set, it was nowhere to be found.
Set list below.
I Can't Explain
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O'er Me
See Me, Feel Me
Won't Get Fooled Again