The Who Reign O'er Houston

The Who, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts Toyota Center April 29, 2015

A generation or two removed from The Who's heyday, I came around to them late. It took watching a bunch of Austin bands playing Who songs one night in a small, crowded bar about 15 years ago for me to really get it. The magic is in the way the individual parts of each song interlock with one another, and how the resulting music opens a portal that allows the audience inside. Join together, with the band.

Wednesday night, at a crowded but not full Toyota Center, surviving original members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey brought the rock legends' valedictory "The Who Hits 50" tour to Houston, but kept any sentimentality to a minimum. There was too much music to be played, about two hours of solid Who and a touch of amusingly cantankerous banter between the two principals. By the end of the show, it was as awe-inspiring as music created by guitars, vocals, keyboards and drums can be.

But it didn't come quickly. Besides a spot-on version of "The Seeker," the early parts of the evening felt a little loose. Three songs in, "Who Are You" allowed the supporting cast -- featuring longtime sideman Pino Palladino on bass, Townshend's younger brother Simon on guitar and Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey on drums -- plenty of time to get limbered up, among the curmudgeonly banter about the difference between Texan and British accents and Townshend revealing the true meaning behind "Squeezebox." (Hint: it's not about an accordion.)

During this part of the show, Townshend was downright congenial, reminiscing about Woodstock and Monterey Pop, reminding the crowd that "I Can See For Miles" was the band's first U.S. hit, and asserting that although he's about to be 70 in a couple of weeks, The Who "still know how to fuck things up." That much was made plain by the working over they gave "My Generation" and "Magic Bus," where the band earned their old "maximum R&B" nickname with some mighty harmonica-blowing by Daltrey.

The opening portion of the show closed when Daltrey dropped his guitar and Townshend goaded him to "go on, finish it off," to which the singer replied, "You've had your fill of that." Townshend came back with "I'm not sure I follow you," as Daltrey parried "I followed you to fucking Houston, didn't I?" And so forth and so on, to big chuckles all around.

The pivot, where it became apparent that this was no laughing matter anymore, came about on "Behind Blue Eyes." Offsetting the pensive (and lovely) opening against the rage that boils over in the middle section, accentuated perfectly by Starkey's rumbling drum fills, the Who's Next fable of a conflicted psyche drained most of the levity from the arena and replaced it with a kind of quiet reverence for the decades of combined experience that was quickly manifesting itself.

"Bargain" added even more weight, Daltrey rearing back and belting like only he and probably AC/DC's Brian Johnson can. ("The best I ever haaaaaaaad!") On "Join Together" he turned ringmaster, spurring the crowd and roving the stage as the other players wove the tune into a tightly-knit unity blanket. The rotating psychedelic visuals, saturated with rich primary colors, worked with the slowly escalating music to create a kind of trance-like effect. "You Better You Bet" broke the spell a little, but only because the giant screen behind the band combined animation, photos and Pop Art to give a panoramic, almost Pythonesque visual account of The Who's history as the group cranked in the foreground. It was the one time all night when the band was upstaged by their own production.

During the concert's second half, it got a lot harder to take notes. There were softer and more whimsical moments here and there -- "I'm One" and the mini-opera "A Quick One (While He's Away)" -- but starting with the opening of Quadrophenia's "Love, Reign O'er Me," it seemed more appropriate to soak in the music than attempt to jot down words to describing it. I'm not even sure those kinds of words even exist; august, glorious, stupefying, something like that.

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The Tommy suite in particular that spanned "Amazing Journey," "Sparks" (with Townshend doing a bit of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady"), "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me, Feel Me" was scored to visuals of a pinball machine that completed a 2001-like space odyssey of its own; there's nothing like a giant silver finger pointing back at the audience during the "listening to you" part to put things into perspective. And all you really need to know about the finale is that several people may or may not have left their bodies during "Baba O'Reilly" and Daltrey 100 percent nailed the famous CSI Miami scream on "Won't Get Fooled Again."

And that's it. Never having seen The Who live before, I was never 100 percent sure I really "got" them, even after that night in Austin. But after being in that building while that band was playing those songs, I understand. The Who put forth the idea -- radical when the band was new -- that rock could be both majestic and in-your-face; that it could be cheeky and rude but also contained a mystical and terrible beauty, occasionally even in the same song. So when The Who soon passes from the scene, they will take with them an ineffable life force that was completely and uniquely theirs, but their fans have been immeasurably enriched by experiencing it.

So, How Was the Opener? Joan Jett & the Blackhearts? Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah...

Personal Bias: cow.org/csi/

The Crowd: White as a sheet. Pretty much aging rockers/Baby Boomers across the board, except more younger folks than most '60s/'70s acts. Said young'uns were about 100 percent more into Jett's opening set than the people around them.

Overheard In the Crowd: Nothing special, but the parade of people going up and down the seats starting around the Tommy songs was pretty distracting. Can't you people hold it in until the show is over?

Random Notebook Dump: Nice slideshow of behind-the-scenes info about the band -- including a card about Jett's longstanding relationship with The Who, one about their famous "Union Jack-et" garb and another entitled "The Who In Houston" -- before the show started.

SET LIST I Can't Explain The Seeker Who Are You Squeezebox I Can See For Miles Pictures of Lily My Generation Magic Bus Behind Blue Eyes Bargain Join Together You Better You Bet I'm One Love Reign O'er Me Eminence Front A Quick One (While He's Away) Amazing Journey Sparks Pinball Wizard See Me, Feel Me Baba O'Reilly Won't Get Fooled Again

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