The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12

The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12
Photos by Steve Cohen

The Who
Target Center, Minneapolis
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Parsing out the good and the bad from the Who's performance at Target Center has an added gravity to it. Here's a band that has spent nearly 50 years shaping the structure that we call rock 'n' roll today -- not only the speaker-puncturing antics of a live act, but also the ongoing meta approach that leads to titling an album The Who Sell Out and letting their humanity be just as much a part of the pageantry as the music itself.

Eventually our heroes' humanity catches up with them. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend is 67 and nearly deaf. Lead singer Roger Daltrey is 68 and has to fight to get the notes out at times. The rock opera Quadrophenia is 40, but its theme of split personalities gains more relevance daily as our lives become further divided into social media quadrants. Keith Moon and John Entwistle aren't celebrating birthdays any longer, but the Who carried on Tuesday without forgetting them.

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Slideshow: The Who at Target Center 11/27/12

The stage motifs for the Who's performance were pretty simple by today's ever-expanding stadium standards. On a rectangular stage -- no moving parts or catwalks or fire-breathing cannons -- it was Daltrey, Townshend, guitarist Simon Townshend, bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Zak Starkey, and a supporting cast of multi-instrumentalists handling keys, brass and the extra touches that Quadrophenia requires. Occasionally, there were some flourishes and strobing with the lights, and some topical backdrop came from the video screens positioned around them, but mostly this was a showcase of what the surviving Who can still do.

Launching right into the rock opera's opening numbers, "I Am the Sea/The Real Me," Daltrey showed he was still willing to acrobatically twirl his microphone on its cord -- perhaps a little slower and with more concentration than in years past, but still. With a white dress shirt under his blazer that gradually seemed to unbutton to reveal a still-chiseled physique, Daltrey has maintained his frontman appearance. As for his singing, it was a long night of vocal chin-ups that occasionally didn't quite clear the bar.

The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12
The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12
Photos by Steve Cohen

The bearded Townshend, clad in a red-and-white checked button down, did his best to shake off the years to windmill and beat up his cherry-colored Strat, and even got a few choice hops in as "Quadrophenia" got underway. For "Cut My Hair," he took over the lead vocals. With eyes closed and arms gesturing, he growled through the universal tale of the clashes between parental expectations and youthful desires.

His lyric "I work myself to death just to fit in" proved poignant since both departed Who members Keith Moon and John Entwistle's rock 'n' roll livestyles sped their deaths. Their contributions to Quadrophenia were lovingly added via the video screens. "5:15" was the departed bassist's moment to glisten via one of the most complex and inventive bass solos ever created. Meanwhile, Moon got his moment on the screens in a rare singing role for "Bell Boy." In both cases, there was no pause in the mounting flow of the story -- as quickly as these images of their fallen brothers appeared, they were replaced by more vintage newsreel and crashing waves. The show had no choice but to go on.


And the Who's two survivors are working themselves closer to death every time they put on another two-plus hour performance. Each bloodcurdling wail from Daltrey's larynx was an added risk he took that he'll never speak again, and each twirl of Townshend's right arm a possibility that the rotator cuff could give way and send his limb flying into the crowd. It's a little like watching the veteran NFL running backs suiting up and finding ways to get it done long after their knees have been permanently disfigured. Was there an added thrill in seeing them give these lifelong stunts another go with these perils in mind? Of course. 

Were there times also when the idea of something less ambitious, less Who-like seemed more humane? Sure. Until the punch of "I've Had Enough" and "5:15," the set notably lacked in energy. This was in spite of the tireless drive of Simon Townshend, Palladino, Starkey. In order to have something left to give for the opera's finale of "The Rock" and "Love, Reign Over Me," these were the concessions made.

The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12
The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12
Photos by Steve Cohen

And yet, these gents have been too proud to let Quadrophenia be the only offering of the night. With no real break, they pounded out "Who Are You" as the first of a six-hit coda, which included one of the only props of the whole night, a rotating stool for Townshend for his soloing. After a tender acoustic "Behind Blue Eyes" a brief speech from the guitarist followed, and he mentioned that he was disappointed that there was no snow in the Twin Cities, blaming global warming.

Cheers of recognition streamed through once the first chord of "Pinball Wizard" emerged, and this was Townshend's most physical playing of the entire night. Daltrey had his work cut out for him as "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" followed. There were some notes missed, but that "YEEEEEEEEAH" that has become a staple of CBS procedural crime dramas was there when he needed it.


The Who play Quadrophenia at Target Center, 11/27/12
Photo by Steve Cohen

In the end, it's as simple as having a cup of tea with the Who to feel like there was a connection. After the rest of the band cleared the stage, Roger and Pete broke out "Tea & Theatre" from 2006's comeback album Endless Wire. This was the least-familiar piece from the evening, but seeing Daltrey sip from a mug as Townshend strummed -- and occasionally mishandled -- a simple acoustic accompaniment, it was that humanity soaking into all of us again. As they finished, singer gingerly touched guitarist's shoulder. Rock 'n' roll has always been a young man's game, but nostalgia works the opposite way. It's a great gift when our heroes let us grow old with them.

Random Detail: As I was leaving, I spotted a young gentleman in a Godsmack T-shirt commemorating their 2009 tour.

Overheard: As the video screens shimmered with small droplets of light during the intro for "Love, Reign Over Me," someone behind me said, "Look, it's cocaine!"

The Crowd: Mostly content to sit for a good portion of this show.


I Am the Sea
The Real Me
Cut My Hair
The Punk and the Godfather
I'm One
The Dirty Jobs
(Simon Townshend lead vocals)
Helpless Dancer
Is It in My Head?
I've Had Enough
Sea and Sand
Bell Boy
Doctor Jimmy
The Rock
Love, Reign O'er Me

Who Are You
Behind Blue Eyes
Pinball Wizard
Baba O'Riley
Won't Get Fooled Again
Tea & Theatre

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