Roger Daltrey with Paul Freeman @ Agganis Arena, Boston, on Saturday, September 17, 2011.
The Who may not have made the first rock opera (that tip of the hat would be pointed in The Pretty Thing's direction for their SF Sorrow release), but they made the most recognizable one in Tommy and even improved on the form via Quadrophenia, which would be realized half a decade later. Daltrey road-tested this production earlier this year in England with the same band, and kicked it off as a fundraiser for a cancer foundation. He's now landed on the shores to start the North American leg with the same band (sans Pete Townshend, who made a surprise appearance at the Royal Hall show in London, singing and playing on "The Acid Queen"). Before tonight's performance, Daltrey took the time to thank the Boston surgeons in the audience who he credited for doing some amazing work on the quality of his vocals. Indeed, on 2009's "Use It Or Lose It" tour, the needle starting swinging to the 'lose it' end, albeit that show was at the end of the tour, and his sixty-seven year old larynx was also fighting a cold.
Fast forward two years on, and the doctors have performed a miracle cure; with cup of tea in hand, Daltrey also thanked Chris Stamp (one of the band's first managers and brother to actor Terence), who was also in attendance. Daltrey rightly defined the centerpiece of the night's performance as 'classical music,' and there was plenty of examples of the form (in power, memorable motifs, emotional flow, etc) so that a comparison of principal songwriter Peter Townshend to Mozart, Mahler or Puccini wouldn't be totally out of place. Townshend wasn't around to exalt, but his brother Simon filled in just fine (uncannily in the vocals department), and right with the opening "Overture" there were thousands of older white guys in the seats playing air guitar along with the crucial chords.
As a story, Tommy is a bit of a wool ball, collecting a bunch of disparate parts in its weave...an affair, a witnessed murder, catatonia, pinball expertise, and a doctor that can break the spell and bring the true person out to life, out of his self-imposed cocoon. Once the ball got rolling (and all it took was the first chord intros of "Overture") it was pure momentum, with Daltrey singing, smiling, mic swinging, and generally looking like what he was doing was absolutely meant to be. VH1 has been playing the movie version of Tommy for the past few weeks, and when "Go To The Mirror" hit, all I could do was to envision Jack Nicholson in the scene.
The only slight drawbacks were the overt simplicity of the projected graphics (afterwards Daltrey explained that it was the work of students, which cleared that up a bit), and music director/guitarist Frank Simes occasional insistentence on showing his prowess and hot dogging on parts that clashed with internal expectations on how the song should actually sound (cf. "Sensation"). "Sally Simpson" always seemed the odd song out (and was skipped during the Isle of Wight set), but the ending fervor of "We're Not Gonna Take It" carried the set well over the goal line, with Daltrey providing plenty of vocal power on a song that thrives on it, and an audience singing and fist-pumping along to Tommy's ultimate victory.
The next portion was kicked off by Daltrey's proclaiming that "Saturday night is a good time for a bit of fucking around," and was a hodgepodge of Who songs, covers (including a Johnny Cash medley that Daltrey claimed he learned during his days working in a sheet metal factory), and a couple of solo tracks. That material covered the same ground as the 2009 tour. Fun, but overall lacking in impact as compared to what had come before. And as before, he concluded the night with a poignant version of a solo Townshend song, the sparse, contemplative "Blue, Red and Grey."
Solo troubadour Paul Freeman opened the show, and while his mild-mannered folk songs and easy-going stage banter tried to win the crowd over, the lure of food and beer at the concession stands outside the arena proved to be a stronger draw.
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