It was billed as a solo performance, but was so much more. Who knew? Outside Whoville, that is.
Going above and beyond the call of rock star duty, Roger Daltrey went the extra miles (and miles) before a not-quite-sellout crowd at the Paramount Theatre (1,870-seat capacity) in Denver on October 20.
It was a given that the powerful voice behind The Who would deliver a collection of classic rock 'n' roll tunes. But a few friendly folk tales and a certain Mile High Malady provided some unexpected drama from one of the iconic figures of His Generation.
The charismatic lead singer through thick and thin, fame and fortune and life and death has learned a thing or two about himself during a career that goes back to 1962. He started a skiffle group that guitarist Pete Townshend eventually joined, and it officially became The Who in 1964. And during this "Use It Or Lose It" solo tour of North America, the cherished Golden-Throated God of one of the most successful and influential groups still standing - more than four decades after the British Invasion - aims to prove he can still make it on his own.
While his 18-song, nearly two-hour set was peppered with nine numbers made memorable by The Who (none of which he wrote), this was no nostalgic act meant for a Las Vegas lounge.
Sure, two of the opening three numbers were mainstays of the group's primeval past ("Who Are You" and "Behind Blue Eyes" were also on the setlist during The Who's last Denver stop, at the Pepsi Center in November 2006), yet Daltrey adventurously veered from Greatest Hits ground at times. And he made it clear at the outset there was no outside influence, that he and his five-main group, which included that other Townshend (Pete's younger brother Simon), would perform "Who songs that I like to sing."
So that meant bringing refreshing ditties such as "Squeeze Box" and "Red, Blue and Grey (both from 1975's often overlooked The Who By Numbers) out of mothballs. And sometimes sounding like the neglected brother of the family, Daltrey used the occasion to perform material from a prolific, if not necessarily lucrative, solo career that has produced seven studio albums and a couple of compilations. The blue-collar bounce of "Days of Light" (one of seven songs he co-wrote on his last studio release, 1992's Rocks in the Head) stood out. Introducing another number from that album, he boldly challenged Americans by saying, "The next time you vote for president, ask yourself this question: 'Who's Gonna 'Walk On Water'?"
It also gave him the chance to unleash any pent-up emotions and tell his side of the sibling-like rivalry he had with Pete Townshend, The Who's only other surviving full-time member after the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002.
Before tackling "A Second Out," which appeared on his Moonlighting anthology, Daltrey related to a rowdy audience, using a mocking tone to imitate Townshend, "I've written a few songs in my time. And one time, Pete said, 'Well, I don't want to write these fucking songs anymore; you write them.' So I said, 'Well, I'm not the best songwriter, Pete, I'll do my best. ... So I came to write six or seven songs, and this is one of them. And I played them for Pete, who said, 'They're crap.' So I'm going to play this 'crap' song for you."
Daltrey has pledged to be ready when Townshend decides to reunite for another tour, and says he is using this time to get himself and his voice in shape for that eventuality. "The object of this exercise is to get this old fart off his ass," the 65-year-old said, laughing at his personal dilemma.
Hopefully, one night in Denver's rarefied air doesn't destroy those lofty ambitions. Daltrey looked physically fit in blue jeans and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top, with only the tinted glasses and flecks of gray running through those once-golden locks betraying those boyishly handsome/leading man looks. But before the second song, a spirited version of the teen angst-driven "Pictures of Lily," he admitted he would be tested by the mile-high altitude of Colorado.
After performing two nights earlier in San Diego, he said,
"We had a really great day off yesterday. And when my voice has a day off, it doesn't want to get up the next day. So I have to beat the shit out of it to get it to move again. ... My God, it's dry in here. Is it me or is it dry in here?"
"It's dry," the crowd hollered in unison before another Wholigan suggested, "Have a beer." Needing it repeated, Daltrey replied, "My ears didn't get up this morning either. Have a beer? I'm really allergic to that stuff. Really. I'll have a vodka, though. Load me up."
Daltrey also was tossed a scarf after he struggled through the opening verse of "Behind Blue Eyes," and he playfully wrapped it around his neck, then draped it over his head like a turban before starting over the song. It was a cheery moment that was equally entertaining on- and offstage.
The good-natured banter with the gung-ho (and well-oiled) spectators, many of whom remained on their feet the entire concert, continued as the affable Daltrey seemed to enjoy running the show alone again. During The Who's extended breaks/semiretirements, Daltrey has taken on an acting career and teamed with various acts across the world, the Chieftains and the British Rock Symphony among them, while playing high-class venues such as Red Rocks and the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Northern Island. But other than 1994 tour that reportedly was halted because of financial/attendance issues, this is being touted as Daltrey's first solo tour since 1985.
Although he was interrupted several times and constantly mentioned the altitude problem ("I can't get me lungs to working"), Daltrey persevered in an effort to reveal bits of information about himself. He told tales about his beloved first dog that got run over, expressed admiration for American folk and roots music in general (and Johnny Cash in particular before "Ring of Fire") and showed his respect for office and factory workers, providing "there are any more factories left in this country."
During a two-song segment, Daltrey graciously took time to honor artists like Taj Mahal ("one of my own and Pete's favorite singers and blues players"), the Chieftains (the Irish group he collaborated with for a Grammy-winning performance in 1991) and The Band's Garth Hudson ("a genius keyboard player") and Levon Helm ("I just loved the voice of this guy"). All were participants on a concept album called Largo. Daltrey, who urged the audience to buy the "wonderful" album if they can still find it, covered two of its cuts, "Freedom Ride" and "Gimme a Stone." The latter he described as "a song about David and Goliath. ... No matter what color you're wearing today, we're still fighting the big guys."
While mostly playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, Daltrey also was willing to share the spotlight with members of his touring band. While his love/hate relationship with Pete Townshend is ongoing, Daltrey has nothing but love for Simon (left). The singer calls his frequent collaborator (and part-time Who member) a "soul brother" who is "a great artist in his own right ... he deserves a lot of recognition," and is always there for him "unconditionally."
Handed the microphone for two songs, Simon's Re-Pete feat was dazzling. The windmill windups may have been missing, but otherwise he looked and sounded like the real deal. A manic version of The Who's "Going Mobile," replete with the "beep, beeps," became one of the night's early highlights. After playing mandolin while performing his own ballad, "The Way It Is," he shared a soul-brotherly hug with Daltrey.
Musical director Frank Simes, who has performed with numerous solo artists, including Mick Jagger, Don Henley, Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks, handled most of the heavy metal duties, often using a familiar-looking red Gibson. His solos on "Who's Gonna Walk On Water" and "Naked Eye" were brief but riveting, and he ably assisted with wah-wah effects on "Going Mobile."
Simon Townshend (left) and Frank Simes struck a chord with the audience.
Both guitarists were in perfect harmony for the "Best of The Who" moments, most notably during the rapturous "I Can See For Miles," when the rest of the band - including Loren Gold (keyboards), Jon Button (bass) and Scott Devours (drums) - joined in on the vocals.
Only glaring omissions from Pete Townshend's rock operas - Tommy (Daltrey's film career began with the title role in Ken Russell's star-studded 1975 musical) and Quadrophenia - prevented this from becoming a totally satisfying experience for hardcore fans. Yet, none of them seemed to mind (or notice) that the climactic "Baba O'Riley" went off course, causing Daltrey to glare at the responsible party instead of exult in a glorious finish. Or that Daltrey, closing out the night with a ukulele as his only accompaniment, was wincing at the sound of his own voice cracking throughout "Blue, Red and Grey," a sweet song he said Pete Townshend refuses to perform live.
For the man known for possessing the best scream in rock 'n' roll on "Won't Get Fooled Again," it was a quiet way to go out. He even he felt the need to apologize for his "voice (that) has gone a bit raw, I'm afraid."
Despite all that, expect to hear more down the road from Daltrey, who's keeping it raw and real.
Denver setlist Who Are You Pictures Of Lily Behind Blue Eyes A Second Out Days Of Light Freedom Ride Gimme a Stone Going Mobile The Way It Is Squeeze Box Who's Gonna Walk On Water I Can See For Miles Young Man Blues Baba O'Riley Ring of Fire Without Your Love Naked Eye Blue, Red and Grey