Photos and Story by Scott Smith
No band plays with more fire, across-the-board talent or purpose than The Who. Nobody.
Led by co-founders Pete Townshend (guitar, vocals) and Roger Daltrey (vocals), The Who shot new life into their already-impressive 1973 concept album, “Quadrophenia,” with a front-to-back live rendition on Valentine’s Day at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
The magnificent, multi-media concert showed The Who to be in prize-fighting form and featured more lead singing from Townshend than any Who tour of the last 16 years.
Dressed in a white T-shirt, black pants and black shoes, Townshend windmilled away on his red Fender Stratocaster on the opening riff-festival that is “The Real Me,” while Daltrey sang with soul-finding conviction.
Save for a couple spots in the evening, Daltrey sounded every bit as good as he did on The Who’s magnificent 2000 tour, with his strong, defiant tenor hitting 99-percent of his targeted notes.
Townshend’s voice also seemed to gain strength at the Tulsa show compared to his still-good vocals during The Who’s performance at the 2010 Super Bowl, the 2012 Summer Olympics and the 12-12-12 benefit concert. At times in the past, Townshend growled and hollered some of his vocal passages, but in Tulsa, his voice returned to its cleaner, often-vulnerable character, as heard on the original “Quadrophenia” album and Townshend’s own 1980 solo album, “Empty Glass.”
On this new tour, Townshend sings a lot, and it’s this slight shift in the lead-vocal department that works in favor of The Who. Having Townshend’s voice play such a strong role in the “Quadrophenia” portion gives an added color to the modern-day Who. Daltrey does sound fantastic — his incredible vocal journey throughout the truly brilliant “Love Reign O’er Me” at the BOK was well worth the admission price alone — but having Townshend and Townshend’s younger, guitar-playing brother, Simon, frequently on microphones gave The Who an added aural dimension.
Simon’s lead vocals on “The Dirty Jobs” was an unexpected highlight for fans, as was Simon’s lead-guitar parts during the early moments of the “Quadrophenia” set. More spectacular aspects included the strong presence of The Who’s original rhythm section, the late John Entwistle (bass) and the late Keith Moon (drums), courtesy of terrific, archival footage on the arena’s big screens. Forty-year-old footage and sound from a headphones-wearing Moon blended perfectly with the live Who’s sound on “Bell Boy,” and for the full-throttle nirvana of “5.15,” Entwistle was seen and heard soloing on bass from a November 2000 Who show, his fingers and thumbs comprising tan-colored blurs.
The isolated sound of Entwistle’s speedy, power-house bass playing accompanied the live-drum sound of skin-pounder Scott Devours, Daltrey’s solo drummer who’s been subbing for a sick Zak Starkey. Without question, Starkey, who is Ringo Starr’s son, has been vital to The Who’s lifeblood since he signed on for The Who’s 1996-1997 tour, but in all fairness, Devours was a tremendous presence driving The Who in Tulsa. Refusing to ape the peerless styles of Moon and Starkey (thankfully), Devours magically put his own thumping spin on the drum parts while retaining much of the feel of the original studio recordings.
Pino Palladino, The Who’s bass player since Entwistle died in the summer of 2002, stood in a low-key way at stage right while wearing what looked like a green military jacket and cap. Palladino’s four-stringed style is less aggressive than Entwistle’s technique, but Palladino’s fluid fingering throughout “The Real Me” and the encore hits “Who Are You,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” was perfect.
The only noticeable bump at the Tulsa gig occurred when Pete Townshend, for some reason, stopped playing guitar for about 10 seconds during the up tempo portion of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Staring at his guitar technician into the darkened, stage-left wings, The Who’s chief songwriter let his Stratocaster momentarily hang silent before picking back up during the song’s bruising, power-chord crescendos.
Almost miraculously, the multi-generational audience sat and watched all of the 90-minute “Quadrophenia” section — many hard-core fans and Townshend himself consider “Quadrophenia” The Who’s crowning artistic statement, although Who LPs like “Tommy,” “Who’s Next” and “Live at Leeds” are more popular with the group’s more casual fans. The fans knew the encore-hits portion was coming, but still, for them not to make frequent dashes to the merch tables and beer lines said something of their commitment to absorb the art-rock greatness of “Quadrophenia.”
Who fans do need to make sure they arrive early to the show to catch the Los Angeles-based quartet Vintage Trouble, who opens the evening with a gotta-see, gotta-hear set that’s full of lead guitar, roaming bass, hard-hitting drum patterns and powerful, James Brown-esque vocals. In Tulsa, Vintage Trouble showed they were one of the few bands today that can open for The Who with such dignity, grace and memorable, good-time music.