When we settled into our seats at Calgary’s Saddledome last Tuesday, I looked down from our vantage point high above the stage, thinking only, “I just don’t want to be disappointed.”
We were, finally, going to see what was billed as The Who Hits 50! I was about to see one of my favourite bands for the very first time after a half-century of listening to songs that represent my generation like no others.
Along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Who was a dominant force in the 1960s, when the wave of British rock rolled through North America. Each new single by any of these groups was met with the same reaction: How high will it go on the charts? It’s hard to describe what a force this trio of British bands was in those days, and I don’t think the music world has ever seen anything like it again. Sure, there were other great performers, and not all of them were British, but these groups formed the holy trinity and it was a great time to be a radio listener.
Strangely, the most popular of the three, the Beatles, was the short-lived group. Success does strange things to people and the members simply couldn’t handle being together. Money obviously wasn’t a motivating factor. But no one, and I do mean no one, would have predicted then that members of the Who and the Rolling Stones would still be alive, let alone performing, and at a high level, in 2016. After all, it was Roger Daltrey who sang, “Hope I die before I get old,” and Mick Jagger who sang, “Dying all the time, lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”
When I bought our tickets for the Who concert it was scheduled for last year in October. Then, Daltrey got sick and a bunch of the gigs were postponed. I made good use of the time by reading Pete Townshend’s memoir, Who I Am. It’s a terrific read, but a sad one, documenting the drug- and booze-addled days of men (Daltrey was largely the exception) who had too much money and too little control. Insane lifestyles claimed two musical giants in drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle and it seems miraculous that Townshend survived. Like many artists, he battled mental health issues as well as addictions.
Who I Am led to a funny little story, though. Townshend talks about the early touring days and the band’s first trip to North America. He mentions concerts in Calgary and Edmonton in 1967 when the Who opened for Herman’s Hermits. When I read this, I asked Angela who opened for Herman’s Hermits when she and her sister travelled from the farm in eastern Alberta to Edmonton for the concert. She thought a minute and said, “I think it was the Who. I remember they smashed their instruments.”
So there we were, all these years later, sitting in the Saddledome and waiting for the Who’s opening act to finish so Daltrey and Townshend could take the stage. My own thoughts went back almost as many years, to when I sat in the old Stampede Corral and watched the spritely flutist Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. Occasionally I could even tell which song was playing — the sound was as bad as it was loud.
Without any of the schtick that so many modern acts use, the band members (including the fantastic drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son) simply walked out onto the stage and launched into a remarkable 130-minute performance. Impressive, because the group’s sole survivors, Daltrey and Townshend, are both over 70. “Who Are You”. “The Seeker”. “The Kids Are Alright”. “I Can See for Miles”. “My Generation”. Each song was brilliant, with Daltrey’s voice in fine form (although his beautiful, full tenor voice is a distant memory) and Townshend still windmilling his right hand to slash through chords in a way no other guitarist ever could. Gone are the athletic jumps, but he is still surprisingly agile.
The crowd loved it and sound wouldn’t have been better if I was listening to the stereo in my living room. As the group moved through its 22-song set I was astonished at the great sound and visual display, and thrilled by the obvious joy that Daltrey and Townshend still take from performing. Ninety minutes in, they launched into songs from Tommy — one of my desert island discs — and I expected that “See Me Feel Me (Listening to You)” would be the end. What could be more suitable? Instead, they moved into “Baba O’Riley” and finished with (what else?) “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
We should be so lucky! As we walked back to the car I thought about how I was not in any way disappointed. Miraculously, this sounded not like a greatest hits retrospective but a concert that was 51-and-a-half years in the making. I was a grateful witness.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.