CONCERT REVIEW: THE WHO HITS BACK AT DENVER’S BALL ARENA
“The Who Hits Back,” last night at Ball Arena in Denver, is the rescheduling of a concert that was to occur over two years ago but was postponed.
I’ve been asked:
“Aren’t they mostly dead?”
No, I answered, that’s the Grateful Dead, who, ironically, I saw with The Who at a double-header back in October 1976 at the “Day on the Green #7” concert at the Oakland Colosseum.
The Dead performed first at that concert, and even though it was an open-air venue, the air was redolent with the aroma of burning herbs. The atmosphere was thus prepared when The Who took the stage.
The Who was well known to American audiences by that time; during the previous year, they had released the album Who By The Numbers and the soundtrack to the movie version of Tommy.
At the time, Pete Townsend, The Who’s songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, was living in Walnut Creek, a bedroom community just over the hill from Oakland.
Not Dead Yet
The correct answer to the question about if they’re mostly dead is:
“No, they’re only half dead.”
Drummer Keith Moon and bass guitarist John Entwistle have died of drug overdoses. Pete Townsend and vocalist Roger Daltry continue to tour.
The Significance of The Who
Billed in the ’60s as “the most exciting rock band in the world,” they did not disappoint:
- They produced, if not the first, then the most memorable “rock opera” of the ’60s: Tommy.
- They created another groundbreaking rock opera in 1973 called Quadrophenia, recorded in quadrophonics (4-channel stereo.) I saw the U.S. premiere of their album in 1973 at their concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
- They were a featured band at Woodstock in 1969.
- Robert Stigwood made a movie musical version of Tommy in 1976.
- They’ve been performing for 58 years.
At one time, the Guinness Book of World Records called them
“the loudest rock band in the world”
based on a concert in London on May 31, 1976, when their music registered at 126 decibels, measured at a distance of 105 feet from the speakers. And yes, I brought my earplugs. My Apple Watch informed me early in the evening that the volume had already exceeded the 90 decibels threshold.
The Who Live
So how was this concert at this venue? I’ve seen them perform perhaps a dozen times at venues across the country and several times at this venue in Denver. It is a large indoor sports arena hosting this stop, one of 16 dates on this tour. For a sports event, it can hold about 19,000 fans; music events draw about 16,000 for a sold-out show.
As on their previous tour, this concert featured a full-scale orchestra for two of the almost two dozen song sets in three distinct sections. The middle set features Pete and Roger performing as part of an electric quintet, then alone for an acoustic performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The final song of the third section, “Baba O’Riley,” is well known to even modern audiences as the theme song to the CSI: NY TV show and appears in lots of other movies and TV shows, up to the recent Stranger Things.
The faithful Wholigans were out in force, buying Who t-shirts from the merch booth at $50 to $120.
The warm-up band Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs played for the first 40 minutes. It took another 30 minutes to set up the stage and seat the full orchestra before The Who came on.
Pete Townsend comes to the microphone and says:
“So, we finally found you, 10,000 miles from f__ anywhere.”
Pete likes the f-bomb and uses it several times during the night.
Most of the crowd was on their feet for the entirety of the concert.
The Who’s Setlist
This is the first of six songs from their first rock opera. This opening track of Tommy is an operatic masterpiece. Even when it came out in 1969, it was considered remarkable — six and a half years before Queen’s operatic Bohemian Rhapsody. Pete was windmilling; Roger was banging two tambourines together. It ends with hints of Pinball Wizard yet to come.
Roger begins, pitched in a key that’s a bit easier for him to hit now.
Roger continues the narration of the deaf, dumb, and blind boy, “Tommy.” Pete shows off his guitar pyrotechnics. We get our first glimpse of Roger’s signature twirling his microphone aro Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.
the previous song effortlessly segues into this instrumental, and each band member gets to show their stuff.
perhaps their most popular song, it was covered by Elton John in the movie version of Tommy. He later released it as a single, and it charted.
We’re Not Gonna Take It
was their last song from their 20-song Tommy setlist at Woodstock and is a crowd favorite.
Roger may not sound like he did at Woodstock, but no one else can do this live as he does.
“I remember from the last time I was in Colorado that there’s a little less air to breathe.”
Who Are You
from the album of the same name, released in 1978. Roger, in an unusual move, plays the guitar. One of their only songs that officially has the f-bomb in the lyrics. Peter will subsequently add it to subsequent songs. After a water break, they came back with
from the 1982 studio album, It’s Hard has an extended instrumental introduction with some sweet guitar kicks by Pete. The blandishment from the orchestra was lush.
Ball And Chain
Pete informs us this is the only song they’ll perform from their 2019 album Who, created around the COVID-19 lockdown. The song is about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. The tufted back curtain behind the stage went through a rainbow of colors during the song.
Then Pete did an “old man” dance. He introduced the local orchestra.
“They’re all mountaineers; they know how to get a diesel truck over the mountains”
You Better You Bet
from the 1981 album Face Dances, it was No. 1 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart for five weeks. It involves lots of singing by Roger, which he does quite well. Pete wrote it about his girlfriend at the time.
Pete teases some of the loyalist fans in the front row that he will do some songs just for them. Then an oldie:
a single from 1970 that was later included in the 1971 Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy compilation album. Pete calls it a “swinging” song, then complains that it
“should have more flourishing.”
goes back to 1974 and was included in several of their albums.
“We had to cancel our 2019 concert here because we went to Texas. The pandemic cocked up that one”
The last concert of their 2019 tour was in Houston, but after 45 minutes, Roger’s voice gave out due to bronchitis. They never got to Denver after that. Then the COVID-19 pandemic produced a lockdown, and you know the rest of that story.
Another Tricky Day
is from 1980 and has been featured live on several tours since then.
Don’t Get Fooled Again
then part of the orchestra returns and is introduced. Pete takes a chair.
Behind Blue Eyes
with Pete on acoustic guitar. Roger sings it mournfully, augmented by sonorous strings. The full orchestra returns for songs from the 1973 Quadrophenia:
The Real Me
is quite kinetic and is well-augmented by the orchestra. It’s the first song from the double album with lyrics. It talks about the teenage angst of a young English “Mod” who has four personalities as he asks,
“Can you see the real me?”
of his doctor (psychiatrist), mother, and preacher.
starts as a solo by Pete, done quietly, his acoustic guitar backed by the orchestra. Roger joins him later in the song. This song appeared in the TV show Freaks and Geeks, which featured many of their songs.
continues the story of teenage angst and was depicted as such in the movie version of Quadrophenia. Our adolescent protagonist takes the 5:15 train to Brighton and reflects on his life as a Mod and conflicts with Rockers. This song has lots of jamming by Pete and the band.
Is It Me?
this instrumental features wicked drum licks over a video montage of the turbulent last half century, with homages to John Entwistle and others, right up to the death of Queen Elizabeth. This is followed by a
that segues into
Love, Reign O’er Me
Roger is in fine form in this soaring song, as he does in their last song from Quadrophenia
is the opening track to the 1971 album Who’s Next, considered by some critics to be one of their best albums. Where does the title come from? Pete was inspired by guru Meher Baba and inspired by composer and minimalist Terry Riley to use modal input to a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ.
Although Roger does most of the singing, Pete sings:
Don’t raise your eye,
It’s only teenage wasteland.”
In interviews, Pete observed that at Woodstock, audience members were strung out on acid, and 20 people had brain damage. In another interview, he related that, after their 1969 Isle of Wight Festival performance, the field was covered by waste left by the teenage fans.
Ironically, this has become a teenage anthem.
The show closes with:
Pete: gives his thank yous.
“Let’s do this again… We are getting older, and Roger’s voice is getting better.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian