When I saw The Who in August 2003, I couldn't believe how good Roger Daltrey sounded.
Eight years later, at 67, I wasn't sure what to expect as Daltrey arrived in Hammond to perform The Who's Tommy in its entirety (without Pete Townshend).
Here's a man, from one of the biggest bands of all time, who once famously sang "I hope I die before I get old"... at 67 years of age... performing at a casino... near Gary, Indiana. And there were a lot of empty seats.
But Daltrey immediately put all of my fears to rest as he took the stage Friday night treating a two thirds full casino venue as if it was Wembley Stadium.
And make no mistake, Daltrey was fired up as he took at least two shots at his Who partner Pete Townshend. When introducing the band, of his guitar player/singer Simon Townshend (Pete's brother), Roger said "My right hand man, who supports me in whatever I do, Mr. Simon Townshend Daltrey!" Later on, before finishing the show with a solo ukelele rendition of the often overlooked 1975 Who By Numbers track "Blue, Red and Grey," Daltrey remarked "I could never get Pete to play it because he said I looked f*****g stupid playing the ukelele. Well here I am and I don't feel f*****g stupid."
So make no mistake, Daltrey was on a mission to prove that he could pull this off without his Who partner.
From the opening notes of "Overture," and vocals of "It's a Boy" and "1921," three things were obvious quick (despite the lack of a horn section): 1.) This was going to be a pretty rocking affair (much more so than on record). 2.) Simon Townshend was going to be a more than suitable replacement for his brother (he sounds just like him). And 3.) Roger Daltrey remains in outstanding command of his voice (he only recently admitted to having pre-cancerous growths removed from his vocal chords in late 2009).
While I fully realize it is blasphemous to admit, I've never been a huge fan of Tommy. But credit Daltrey and his band (Simon Townshend on guitar and vocals, Jon Button on bass, Scott Devours on drums, Loren Gold on backing vocals and keyboards, and Frank Simes on backing vocals and guitar. Roger played acoustic guitar, harmonica and tambourine) for taking a chance, not only by touring this complicated/storied album, but by upping the ante, adding extra guitar and keeping the set moving. The Tommy portion of the evening went about seventy minutes with absolutely no stage banter or breaks. The band essentially played nonstop for every one of those seventy minutes. The highlights of the set were the hits: "Sparks," "Pinball Wizard" and "I'm Free."
Daltrey offered that his intention for the evening was to "... treat Tommy with the respect it deserves!" Mission accomplished (as I can't imagine that I will be the only person in attendance to view that album in an entirely different light moving foward).
"And now it's time for some f****ng about!" proclaimed Daltrey as he and the band kicked off a set of Who favorites, covers and rarities with "I Can See For Miles" (Devours propelled the song with his stellar drumming and energetic fills). "People forget the importance of a good band." mentioned Daltrey with a wave of his hand toward his mates. "I'm so glad that the noise they made in their lifetime is sitll echoing" he continued (one of many comments made by Daltrey in regards to his deceased former Who mates Keith Moon and John Entwistle). The band paid homage as they ably ran through a number of classics from the Who catalog including "The Kids are Alright," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Going Mobile" (with a killer vocal from Simon), "Who Are You" (still my all time favorite use of the "F" word in popular music), and "Baba O'Riley."
But this wasn't just a retread of familiar hits: it was an opportunity for education that saw Daltrey and his band enlighten the crowd with a Johnny Cash medley and a cover of Taj Mahal's "Freedom Ride."
Though it was Daltrey's take on "Days of Light" (from his 1992 solo album Rocks in the Head) that was an eerily fitting song for him to be singing in the northwest Indiana shadow of the former steel mills. His blue collar upbringing was mentioned several times during the show (Daltrey was at one point a sheet metal worker in the early sixties before The Who took off).
"I know what it's like to work in those factories. You've given me a dream life and I thank you." said Daltrey to the Hammond, Indiana crowd. Roger Daltrey may just be the most humble legend that I've ever seen live on stage.
Welsh singer-songwriter Paul Freeman opened the show with an entertaining mix of his own songs like "Ashes in the Flood" (which sounded an awful lot like John Lennon's "Working Class Hero") and "Walking a Tightrope" (both of which felt like they'd be perfectly fit for a rock band backing) as well as covers like The Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" and about twenty seconds of The Who's "Pinball Wizard"... before he thought better and left the rocking to Roger Daltrey.