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The Who in New York: The Beast That Still Roars

Dates at MSG and Jersey’s Capitol Theater bring a hedonistic hoedown

Capitol Theater
Passaic, New Jersey
September 11th, 1979

Madison Square Garden
New York City
September 13th, 1979

The old parable about the four blind men who each grab a particular part of an elephant and then try to define the beast has been much in my mind for some days now. The idea of summing up what more than 110,000 Who fans saw and felt across seven nights of concerts is too grandiose. But I thought that if I got, say, four people to appraise the two shows I attended, I might be able to piece together what the elephant looks like. Well, it doesn’t work that way; the only trust-worthy reaction to a Who show is a personal one.

It had been more than three years since the Who’s last performance in the United States. This was not because Keith Moon was sick and/or doomed, nor because Pete Townshend‘s ears hurt, but because of a long malaise that had left Townshend sitting at home feeling obsolete – “unstimulated,” as he puts it, by the idea of going through the rock & roll motions. “The band was very locked into our past,” says Townshend. “It had consumed us.” When Keith Moon died, the Who’s myth – their cult – was scrapped for something that is still being defined. The band was “liberated in a way” (Townshend’s words) by Moon’s death.

So, Keith without tears. And, as the Who took the stage at the Capitol Theater for their long-awaited return set, Kenney Jones without apologies. “Stop booing Kenney,” Roger Daltrey said amiably at one point. Likewise, the addition of keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick to the guitar band that these fans had grown up with was a fairly bold change. Then, the final, seemingly silly kink – a three-man horn section blatting superfluously away on a raised platform behind the amps.

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But Bundrick and the horn section weren’t even present for the opening gutbucket oldies, “Substitute” and “I Can’t Explain.” Townshend was so jacked up, springing along sideways onstage, that he threw only a few chance harmonies into “I Can’t Explain.” Daltrey, sporting a few new pounds and a close-cropped shag haircut, looked more like a stolid gym instructor than a sex symbol as he paced in circles and jogged in place alongside Townshend. But his singing was as forceful as ever. Bassist John Entwistle, standing by with his usual distant smirk, had his hair slicked back; Daltrey introduced him as “Manuel.”

Bundrick, who came onstage for the third song, mostly stayed hidden behind a bank of keyboards. But, after taking part in the evening’s hottest exchange with Townshend on “Music Must Change” (the horn section was eyeing the frenziedly riffing guitarist like nervous courtiers caught in the room with a mad lord), Bundrick happily held out his palm to catch Townshend’s exuberant hand slap. And when Pete launched into an almost Lou Reed-style rap during “My Generation” – “You take these two pretty girls down here/You’ve got rock & roll” – Bundrick stood up, fists balled, to cheerlead.

Mike feedback buzzed out Townshend’s verse in “Baba O’Riley,” but he spat out his back-ups on “Sister Disco,” warming up to a fervent solo vocal (against the finally flowering horns) on “Drowned.” With Bundrick supplying the percussive keyboards demanded by “The Punk Meets the Godfather” and “5:15” (both written on piano for Quadrophenia), Townshend was able to peel off blistering guitar leads, and Jones – though his sturdy style lacks Moon’s fire, intuition and pummeling fills – was clearly enjoying his honeymoon with bassist Entwistle.

Personally, I miss Moon badly; his expressiveness was a key element of many Who songs. The long jam that this edition of the band made out of “My Generation” and “Magic Bus” didn’t seem to be necessitated by anything more than habit. Entwistle’s “Trick of the Light,” coming between that jam and a wobbly oldies parade (“Summertime Blues,” “Roadrunner,” Free’s “All Right Now” and “Big Boss Man”), was fortunately one of the evening’s two or three ripsnorting successes.

However happy the band was to play the Capitol (“a real rock & roll joint, smoky and smelly,” according to Townshend), it took the epic scale of Madison Square Garden (“a great shithole”) to remind me that this particular elephant could still make the earth shake. The Who played, up to the encore section, the same nineteen songs they did at the Capitol, but there was something about the abrupt, celebratory roar that greeted “Pinball Wizard” that lurched the whole experience several rungs higher. Daltrey’s new, totteringly grand phrasing on the “See Me, Feel Me” passage from Tommy could have seemed cornball, but he muscled through to provide one of the set’s most riveting moments. Lest anyone forget that great songwriting goes before every other Who virtue, they threw 1969’s “Naked Eye” into the encore. A religious credo that introduces mankind’s best consolations in order to trash them, it hardly seemed right for this hedonistic hoedown. But that’s why we keep feeding, and feeling for, this elephant; if we ever figured the great beast out, we’d probably let it roll over and die.

This story is from the November 1st, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.


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