As Keith Moon would've said – 'Show a little respect; it's a fuckin' opera!'" bellowed vocalist Roger Daltrey as he and Who cohorts Pete Townshend and John Entwistle took the stage at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall June 27th for the first performance of Tommy in nineteen years.
The show was the first of two performances of the rock opera presented by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation to benefit charities for autistic and abused children; it was also the group's third stop on a concert swing marking its twenty-fifth anniversary and dubbed the Kids Are Alright Tour: 1964-1989. But for all intents and purposes, Daltrey's spirited invocation for the highly publicized show – which was broadcast live over national radio – marked the Who's reemergence seven years after the group concluded a farewell tour.
Joined onstage by nine backup musicians and three vocalists, the band launched into a crisp version of the opera's "Overture." In just minutes, Townshend's much-reported predictions that he would be more subdued onstage went by the wayside as he launched into his famous scissor-split jumps.
Despite obvious concessions to age, such as the enlistment of guitarist Steve "Boltz" Bolton to handle the lion's share of lead- and electric-guitar work for the hearing-impaired Townshend, the presence of backup singers and the use of several prerecorded rhythm and synthesizer tracks, the band that had once brazenly sung, "Hope I die before I get old," offered a performance that proved that the Who – whose members are now in their midforties – is still vital and electric, if musically predictable. And fans – most of them under twenty-five – appear eager to see the band: More than 220,000 tickets were sold for four New York-area stadium dates, producing a gross of more than $5 million in ticket sales alone.
After barreling through Tommy in an hour, the group offered up a second hour-long set at Radio City featuring many of the songs later performed at the three-and-a-half-hour stadium shows. The material ranged from early hits such as "I Can't Explain" to "A Friend Is a Friend," from Townshend's newly issued album The Iron Man, and boasted far more highs than lows.
Having rehearsed more than eighty songs, the band drew on fifty-seven of them during its first few U.S. shows – which included an open "dress rehearsal" at a hockey rink in the small upstate-New York town of Glens Falls; the first performance at Giants Stadium, in East Rutherford, New Jersey; and the Radio City concert.
Although powerful, the early shows were not without their kinks: A three-song Townshend set spotlighting Iron Man slowed down the Glens Falls show and was gone by the end of the week. Features for Entwistle ("Trick of the Light" and "Too Late the Hero") and an unforgivably schmaltzy cover of Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts" by Daltrey brought the arena shows to a grinding halt.
For most of its shows, however, the Who rumbled and thundered with the authority of a freight train. Aided by the addition of drummer Simon Phillips – whose playing recalls the style and spirit of original Who drummer Keith Moon more than former replacement Kenney Jones's – the group brought an urgency and verve to many of its warhorse anthems, including "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Who Are You" and "Baba O'Reilly."
But at their core, the shows owed most of their muscle to the continued ability of the three surviving members of the Who. Neither Daltrey nor Entwistle shows signs of diminished power, and even if hearing problems have forced Pete Townshend to limit himself to acoustic guitar for much of each performance, watching him play the introduction to "Pinball Wizard" is still like seeing John Hancock sign his name.
This story is from the August 10th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.