At the end of their two-hour, 23-song set that spanned highlights across The Who’s career, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey bypassed an encore, preferring instead to speak to the crowd from the heart for a couple of minutes. Their current “The Who at 50” tour may or may not be the last time the band’s two surviving founders tour together – if anything’s been learned from those first 50 years, it’s never say never – but it was still a poignant moment, given that no one knows what’s next.
“Thank you so much for all the support over the years,” Daltrey, 71, said with sincerity to the large but noticeably not-sold-out Erwin Center crowd. “You’ll see us in the local bar!” exhorted Townshend, who’ll turn 70 next month. “Yeah,” Daltrey chimed in. “We’ll be down at the local pub, playing for tips.”
Fleetwood Mac had a similar show-closing moment with its audience in this same building a few weeks ago. There’s a sense of rock’s classic acts coming to terms with the door closing on not just their era, but their lives. Some fans may have stayed away on Monday because the ticket price was high, or because this eight-piece ensemble with just two original members wasn’t “The Who” to them. But for Daltrey and Townshend, that’s really not the issue: This is life, and there’s not much of it left.
So why not show everyone your best? They did that, absolutely, from the opening “I Can’t Explain,” their first charting single from 1965, to the classic closer “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the climax of 1971’s iconic “Who’s Next” album. In between, they offered a consistently rewarding journey through creative peaks that would be the envy of almost every other rock ’n’ roll band that ever existed.
If Daltrey can’t quite reach some of the high notes he could in the band’s prime, his voice still carries a lot of power. Townshend remains a remarkably nimble and theatrical guitarist, and his distinctive secondary vocal contributions are still a vital supplement to the band’s identity.
The six-piece band behind them may not be John Entwistle and Keith Moon, but they’re not trying to be, and the music certainly doesn’t suffer for it. Drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pio Palladino propelled their leaders forward at every turn. Townshend’s brother Simon added punch on guitar and backing vocals. Keyboardists Frank Simes (the band’s musical director), John Corey and Loren Gold significantly fleshed out the sound, taking center stage on the 1980s hits “Eminence Front” and “You Better You Bet.”
Mostly it was the band’s early material that connected, especially an early-set run on the mid-’60s singles “The Kids Are Alright,” “I Can See for Miles” and “Pictures of Lily.” Served up in sequence, they epitomized Townshend’s great gift for melodic songcraft lurking beneath the band’s reputation for showmanship and force.
If the momentum slowed slightly mid-set, things quickly picked back shortly after a brief visit to the ambitious 1973 “Quadrophenia” album for Townshend’s acoustic “I’m One” and the dramatic Daltrey vocal on “Love, Reign O’er Me.” That paved the way for a full-on immersion into The Who’s rock-opera fascination, starting with the brilliant multi-tiered “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” and moving straight into five mesmerizing tracks from 1969’s “Tommy.”
Townshend’s immortal “Pinball Wizard” guitar riff and Daltrey’s incomparable “See Me, Feel Me” lead vocal closed out the “Tommy” section in signature Who fashion before a double-shot finale from 1971’s “Who’s Next.” The crowd was fully engaged on “Baba O’Riley,” even if their “teenage wasteland” shouts settled across an arena that was more like an old-age pasture. If Townshend and Daltrey can see the end from here, so can many of those along for the ride.
Opener Joan Jett & the Blackhearts were a great bonus for those who arrived early enough to catch her tight 40-minute performance. Fresh from being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland nine days earlier, Jett played the obligatory “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” but was most persuasive on the set-bookending “Bad Reputation” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” She also proved capable of turning out quality material in her mid-50s with “Soulmates to Strangers,” a strong cut from her 2013 “Unvarnished” album.
A nice touch between sets: Video screens behind the stage gathered not only documentary Who photos, but also Austin-specific text recollections. Mention was made of The Who’s only other performance at the Erwin Center, on July 3, 1980, and of Townshend’s 2007 visit to Austin as South by Southwest’s keynote speaker. A list of names served as a personal shout-out to a few dozen attendees, which apparently included Austin musicians Roky Erickson and Jimmie Vaughan as well as guitarist Jeff Beck, who plays Thursday at Cedar Park Center.
The Who set list:
I Can’t Explain
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
Pictures of Lily
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O’er Me
A Quick One (While He’s Away)
It’s a Boy
See Me, Feel Me
Won’t Get Fooled Again