The Who are going to play until the end of time and are pretty damn good at it reports our favourite drummer ex Fall man and currently keeper of the skins for Brix Smith and the Extricated, who takes a minute to compere and contrast the fortunes of his home town manchester and Detroit and finds a marked difference in the past twenty years of the development of two cities that were once cited as exampled of urban decay.
Who are you? – Out and Down in Manchester and Detroit
Just so you don’t get the impression that I’m an internationally-renowned rock critic who makes regular jumps across the pond to review gigs, I feel I should explain.
I was in town for work for two weeks and found myself at something of a loose end at 8pm on Saturday night, so it was pure serendipity which enabled me to catch The Who at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. (A venue which, in the way of these things, looks pretty much identical to the Manchester Arena.) I clearly didn’t seize the opportunity soon enough, as I was seated two rows from the back at the opposite end from the band. Although it has been suggested that Townshend’s hooter is one of the few human objects to be visible from space, without the benefit of big screen I could have been watching pretty much any rhinally challenged sixties guitar hero in action.
I do have some ‘previous’ when it comes to gigs in Detroit by the way. According to the Fall gigography I played a club called ‘Traxx’ (don’t bother looking, it’s not there anymore) on 22 April 1983. The Fall were mid-way through an extensive US-Canada tour (with a stop in Iceland on the way home) in a year that also saw us release two singles and an album; tour Europe twice and the UK once, and record two John Peel sessions, so you’ll forgive me if I can’t describe the wallpaper. Suffice it to say it was significantly scuzzier than the Joe Louis Arena.
Then, as now, Detroit was a lot like Manchester, a post-industrial Metropolis where all the big businesses have moved to the outskirts. It’s clear though that the urban renewal which has transformed Manchester over the last ten years has yet to gain a foothold in Detroit, much of which is still a no-go area for tourists and locals alike. In fact Corktown, The D’s version of The Northern Quarter, is so much in its infancy it still has to work at making the furnishings look old. A night time stroll to the Joe Louis Arena isn’t attempted by many, let’s put it that way. This is a shame, as Detroit has much to offer. (Incidentally, although many travel websites refer to Detroit as ‘The D’, doing so in person will out you as a tourist quicker than an ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt.) The memorial to the Underground railway (by which slaves were smuggled to freedom in Canada) on the Pontiac river is particularly moving, and the huge MGM Grand Casino is worth visiting if only to see what Eastlands would have looked like if Andy Burnham had got his way.
But enough about once-mighty powerhouses struggling to stay relevant in the twenty first century, let’s talk about The Who.
One of the more immediately memorable aspects of the gig was the Joe Louis Arena’s ability to get everyone fed and watered with no queuing. Any regular at arena shows or football matches in the UK will know the frustration of the endless queuing involved in buying watery beer at eye-watering prices. This definitely wasn’t an issue in Detroit; it took me 24 seconds to buy a 24 ounce beer. Ironically the fact that such monstrous beverages are so freely available (and at such low temperatures) does cause queuing in other areas; the gent’s toilets were absolutely rammed. It also provided something of a challenge for those of us in the cheaper seats as a quick comfort-break involved a 20 minute round trip.
The moment The Who took to the stage, and kicked off proceedings with a spirited rip through ‘Who Are You?’ it was clear that Daltrey’s recent vocal issues were mostly behind him. That said, the set was peppered with instrumental passages; presumably these were to give Rog’s larynx a breather. A leisurely stroll through ‘The Rock’ from Quadrophenia for instance presaged the mighty war cry of ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, and what a war cry it was.
Both Daltrey and Townshend seemed to be relishing being back onstage and it was most agreeable, if a little jarring, to see the famously grumpy Mr Townshend in a good mood. Did he handle the bulk of between-song chatter to help out Roger or to emphasise who’s in charge? Probably a bit of both. He obviously delighted in the task, speaking warmly of his affection for Detroit and gently ribbing U2 for having a bigger staging budget than The Who only because they didn’t pay enough tax.
This being a greatest-hits package, unsurprisingly the bulk of the material came from Tommy, Quadrophenia and Who’s Next. There were some detours into the more recherché regions of the band’s back catalogue however, 1982’s ‘It’s Hard’ yielding the ever-forgettable ‘Eminence Front’, surely top of no-one’s wish list. Not that anyone seemed to mind.
The backing band consist of a nice mix of top-of –the range session musicians on the one hand, and friends and family on the other. Pino Palladino on bass, for instance, is a renowned bass-for-hire who does a more than passable imitation of The Ox, though such playing is a million miles away from much of from his previous work. (The rubbery bass line to ‘Music for Chameleons’, as mimed so effectively by Alan Partridge, is the one I will forever associate him with.) Rhythm guitar is ably provided by Simon Townshend, though why anyone would be content to get a gig purely by virtue of the fact that their big brother is in the group is beyond me.
However, the real star of the band, if you’ll pardon the pun, is Zak Starkey. Imagine being able to combine the exuberance and creativity of Keith Moon with the time-keeping (never Keith’s strong suit) and ability to give each song exactly what’s needed of Ringo Starr. It’s almost like he learned from them both. Combine that with the fact that he is unlikely to ingest several horse-tranquilisers two minutes before stage time or blow up the back stage toilets and it goes some way to explaining Mr Townshend’s good mood.
His drumming takes centre stage from the off and is as mesmerising as Keith’s ever was, though possibly for slightly different reasons. Happily, he also bucks the modern trend for smaller and smaller drum kits. Obviously he doesn’t attempt to match the 35-tom-and-a-gong-for-good-luck of Keith’s nadir, but it’s certainly a long way from the Chad-Valley-with-decent-cymbals most sticksmen de nos jours seem to favour. I could have watched him all night (though I accept it would have made this review a wee bit too niche).
Instrumentals and non-hits dealt with, it was on with the meat and potatoes portion of the set. I may have imagined it, but I swear the acoustic intro of ‘Pinball Wizard’ drew an actual gasp of anticipation from the multitude. Certainly it didn’t disappoint, and when, half-way through, Mr Townshend fired off a volley of windmills the 250 pound biker next to me swooned like a Regency debutante with faulty fan. ‘Baba O’Reilly’s wonky synth intro produced similar levels of anticipatory ecstasy and not even Pete’s famously skew-whiff pitching on the middle eight could dampen the collective joy.
There can be few more thrilling experiences in rock than being in the same room as Roger Daltrey when he screams the ‘Yeah’ in the middle of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and personally I can forgive any amount of instrumental interludes if they mean he still has enough in his armoury at the end of the show to pull it off as well as he did tonight. He even swung his Mic. Blimey. A momentous finale.
Daltrey thanked the fans for their ‘fantastic’ (what else) support and left them hanging with a real-life-cockney ‘Beee Lackieeee’ before vacating the stage. No encores, no group bows, just a friendly arm round the shoulder for two old comrades who’ve been together for the best part of 55 years, despite the name of the tour. I think I had something in my eye.
While it’s true certain ‘serious music fans’ question the validity of bands such as the Who and The Rolling Stones (and further down the ladder, Buzzcocks; the Stranglers et al) continuing to ply their trade, on tonight’s evidence, it’s difficult to see any harm. Those wishing to preserve their memory of The Who as young and anti-establishment need only stay away.
With that it was back into the Detroit evening, and the necessity of trying to negotiate your way home. As ever, it’s difficult not to feel like collateral damage in Detroit’s constant war with the pedestrian. As far as I can make out, public transport (which, in the form of the trams, has played a massive role in Manchester’s rejuvenation) consists entirely of an elevated driverless train, which runs on a circular track reminiscent of the average Hornby train set. Thank God for Uber, which I was only able to turn to once I’d managed to locate a piece of sidewalk large enough to stand on. It took a while.
In the U.S., Detroit is as consistently linked with its ever-present arctic winds as Manchester is with constant rain. In truth both of these clichés are as much a part of the cities’ mythology as meteorological fact. Doesn’t feel like myth when you’ve packed the wrong coat though.