Only four days after the sudden and shocking death of bassist John Entwistle, the Who launched their much-anticipated North American summer tour at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl last night. For two emotional hours, the legendary British rock outfit offered a rousing and frequently moving wake for their longtime band mate often known as "The Quiet One."
Long a group capable of making rock & roll sound like a matter of life and death, the Who -- with British session player Pino Palladino substituting on bass -- brilliantly rose to the somber occasion with a show that was by turns, nervy, hilarious and uplifting. A sold-out crowd populated by graying classic rockers and a smattering of youngsters wearing "The Kids Are Alright" T-shirts met the new bass, who was not the same as the old bass, but impressive nonetheless. By evening's end, even Who fans who questioned the group's decision to play walked away thrilled and impressed -- some of them buying ten-dollar bootleg John Entwistle T-shirts on the way out.
Before the show, Pat Swain, forty-four from the Palm Springs area and a lifelong Who fan, explained, "At first, I did make the comment, 'Shouldn't they bury him first?' But under the circumstances, we'd all like to share in the wake."
"Tonight we play for John Entwistle," Roger Daltrey declared after the band kicked things off with explosive versions of "I Can't Explain," "Substitute" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" -- three meaty, beaty Sixties singles delivered with reborn passion. The opening songs followed a strong opening set by Counting Crows, and a quick hug between the Who's two surviving founding members -- Daltrey and Pete Townshend. "He's the true spirit of rock & roll," Daltrey said of Entwistle, who died of an apparent heart attack in his sleep at Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Thursday. "And he lives on in all the music we play."
The Who's set was a potent mix of FM fixtures -- including "Baba O'Riley," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Won't Get Fooled Again" and a punky "My Generation" -- along with a few lesser-known gems like "Relay" and "Sea and Sand." Highlights included a powerful, almost prayer-like version of "Love Reign O'er Me" and the later-era "Another Tricky Day," which added weight given the context. Even better was a version of "The Kids Are Alright," sweetly reworked into a nurturing, almost fatherly duet between Daltrey and Townshend that warmly suggested children are one good reason not to hope you die before you get old.
Throughout the evening, Townshend was on fire on guitar, finding renewed passion for well-aged classics, and being alternately profound and playful in his comments, especially when he was hysterically comparing the Bowl's unusual onstage dome to the birth canal or simultaneously putting down and praising Los Angeles. At other times, this poet laureate of mixed feelings injected a little reality to the evening. "We're not pretending nothing has happened," he explained before "Bargain." "This is going to be difficult." For his part, Daltrey sounded even stronger vocally than at last year's Concert for New York appearance. And while Palladino filled in ably for the often undervalued Entwistle, the musical standout in the six-man outfit was drummer Zak Starkey -- the son of Ringo Starr -- who displayed the power of the late great Keith Moon as well as the rock steady charm of his own Fab father.
Despite the occasional sound problem and the annoying spectacle of a solitary idiot jumping onstage, the show suggested anyone writing off the Who in 2002 is premature. Paradoxically, the Who arguably sounded more like a living, breathing band at the Hollywood Bowl than they have anytime since the 1978 death of Moon.
In the end, this long night's amazing journey was less a matter of mourning in teenage wasteland and more a meaningful moment of healing and midlife grace.