It’s the song, not the singer.
During the penultimate moment of Tuesday night’s performance by the Who at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, the voice of 75-year-old singer Roger Daltrey gave out. The song was Love, Reign o’er Me, the climatic resolution to Quadrophenia, the 1973 rock opera from which Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend and full orchestra had just played selections. Daltrey had come up short, straining to sing “Oh God, I need a drink of cool, cool rain” with a desperately parched howl that made the line ring truer than ever.
As the song closed, Townshend put his hand on the vocally humbled Daltrey’s shoulder in a gesture of commiseration.
For the finale, Baba O’ Riley, as outsized and uplifting a number Townshend and the band has ever come up with, Daltrey held out his microphone – a beggar, hat in hand – as an invitation for the crowd to sing the words he no longer had the throat for. It was no issue at all for the audience to embody the song’s message (“Let’s get together, before we get much older”) and to halloo the boozy, euphoric and nostalgically unifying chorus:
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland
Last year, the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody became the highest-grossing musical biopic of all-time. Despite it being lousy, the film received a best-picture nomination at this year’s Academy Awards and, without its famous singer, Freddie Mercury, Queen successfully toured North America this summer. What accounts for that band’s sustained popularity? It’s not Mercury, and it’s not a trite, historically inaccurate biopic. It’s We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. Fat-bottomed girls do not make the “rockin’ world go ’round,” as Mercury would have you believe: Classic rock anthems do. Do you think fans pay money to watch Aerosmith in 2019 because the band is still making good music? Dream on.
The Who is currently on its Moving On! Tour, a schedule of North American dates with local 48-piece orchestras accompanying the two Who principals and a band that includes Townshend’s brother Simon on rhythm guitar and Zak Starkey (son of Ringo) on drums. A selection of old hits and new material from the band’s forthcoming studio album fill out a set list bookended by the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia.
The orchestral arrangements are not faithful to those of the original recordings. New life is breathed into such well-known selections as Pinball Wizard, We’re Not Going to Take It and The Punk and the Godfather. In Toronto, a cello part added an extra degree of mournfulness to the already moody Behind Blue Eyes.
But my dreams they aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance
That’s never free…
A rock anthem is characterized by a simple (often shuddering) rhythm, a tight melody, a sing-along quality, a galvanizing lyrical theme and a built-up tension that is released as epically as possible. We all have our favourite classic-rock anthems, but the Who’s Townshend has arguably written more of them than anyone else (give or take a Neil Young or this or that Beatle). So much so, that perhaps the band’s most famous anthem – My Generation – wasn’t even missed when it went unperformed in Toronto.
What was clear from the concert was that altered presentations of anthems do little to detract from their communal effect. Won’t Get Fooled Again, a rally call for those let down but not defeated, was performed as an acoustic blues by only Daltrey and Townsend. That the unfamiliar unplugged aesthetic took nothing away from the song’s message and uplift is a testament to the original songwriting.
Townshend’s songs (and some by Queen and those by many others) were built for wars. At the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again, Daltrey sang “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” while pointing to the songwriter on his left. It was a point that is hard to argue.
The Who plays Vancouver’s Rogers Arena Oct. 21; a previously announced concert in Edmonton, Oct. 23, has been cancelled.