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Who dat rocking at the Super Bowl?

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

February 12, 2010

The Who has always been a band with a particular place in my heart. I was still in middle school when my aunt bought me a copy of “Tommy” from a New Haven record store, and the combination of raw rock ’n roll power and genuine spiritual yearning that make up the group’s classic albums had me hooked from the beginning. Pete Townshend’s diverse compositions have defined adolescence more thoroughly than any other artist in any other medium, from the unchecked youthful aggression of “My Generation” to “Quadrophenia’s” complex reflections and meditations on teenage love and angst. My musically-inclined friends are far too picky to agree on much, but The Who is among the very few bands that get our unanimous seal of approval, and I’ve been a part of far more depressingly amateur renditions of “Love Reign O’er Me” than I care to admit.

So I was very excited when I heard that The Who was selected for this year’s Super Bowl half-time show. With my Broncos making it clear that they’d do whatever was possible to avoid postseason play, the prospect of seeing one of my favorite bands gave me special reason to look forward to this year’s game. And in many ways, it seems like The Who are tailor-made for the world’s biggest stadium show. Townshend’s ferocious power chord onslaught and Roger Daltrey’s leonine roar practically invented the anthemic stadium rock spirit, and enough of their hits have entered the public consciousness to turn every Super Bowl party into a twelve minute sing-along.

At the same time, their music retains a depth completely missed by the thousands of band that have followed in their wake. More than any other rock musician, Townshend believed that the unity that comes over a crowd brought together by music was the gateway to a higher consciousness, and he labored over highly ambitious and multifaceted concept albums to prove it, some of which never came to fruition. As a result, The Who’s best work is full of dramatic mood shifts over the course of individual songs and layers of virtuosic, highly calculated instrumental lines. “Baba O’Reily,” one of their most famous songs, is named after a Vedanta spiritual guru and a minimalist classical composer; this definitely isn’t your typical rock band.

The cynic in me, however, realized that there was more to my sense of The Who’s appropriateness for the Super Bowl than merely their musical worth. The Who is not just grand and talented enough for the Big Game; it is commercialized enough. For someone who was once motivated by his message to explore uncharted artistic reaches, Pete Townshend has made a habit in recent years of treading the path of easy money. Flip through the television channels these days, and you’re likely to hear a wide range of Who songs blaring from advertisements and program theme songs. The band seems to be eternally touring despite having released only one new studio album in the past 28 years. Most gratingly for a Who devotee like myself, Townshend and Daltrey continue to cash in on the Who name despite the deaths of half of the original band. And Keith Moon and John Entwistle were far more than just hired guns fulfilling Townshend’s vision; together, they made up perhaps the greatest rhythm section in rock history and contributed integrally to the band’s image and sound during their heyday.

Still, I concede that my romanticized notions about the purity of the music and the message matter not at all to Pete and Roger, and I recognize that ultimately, they have the right to use (or exploit) their creations however they choose. So I allowed my only concern to be, Can they still put on a good show? I had reason to be hopeful. At last year’s VH1 Rock Honors tribute show (grr, VH1), The Who outperformed even very respectable bands like The Flaming Lips and Pearl Jam and proved that there are still no better interpreters of their music than Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey themselves. Sure, the years and substances have had an impact on their voices, but The Who still played with a vitality and creativity that few others can hope to touch.

So I was expecting a very good show, and I got … exactly that. No surprises, nothing that I hadn’t heard in some way before, just a solid, crowd-pleasing twelve minute medley of some of their best known classics. As much as I would have liked to hear, say, “Sea and Sand” or “Pure and Easy,” I knew that with these time constraints, with this audience, and at this stage of their careers, the band would play it as safe as possible. And with The Who, that’s hard to complain about. For them, “As safe as possible” means rip-roaring renditions of “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Reily,” “Who Are You,” “See Me, Feel Me,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” keeping the crowd at Sun Life Stadium, and at the Ziv party I attended, absorbed in the performance. “As safe as possible” means pulling out all stops to deliver a light show that, while maybe not as impressive as it would be in person, still managed to be pretty enthralling on a television screen. “As safe as possible” means the patented Townshend windmill strum and Daltrey microphone swing that created rock ’n roll showmanship. Sure, it would have been cool to see them reach into their instrument-wrecking past and smash a guitar or two, but cut the guys some slack; they’re 65 years old.

Indeed, Roger’s high register is certainly far more limited than it was 40 years ago, but he still displayed a powerful bellow that most vocalists of any age would kill for. And though Pete’s sweet teno that complemented Daltrey so well has lost some of its earnest yearning, the near-sarcastic maturity it lent his claim that “It’s only teenage wasteland” almost made the line even more potent. The biggest drop-off from the olden days came from behind the drum kit; Zak Starkey (on loan from Oasis!) can’t hold a candle to the primal aggression that characterized Keith Moon’s percussion attack (there’s a reason why it’s rumored that Moon was the inspiration for the Muppets’ drummer Animal).

Still, if we have to make do with what we have, I don’t think there’s any group that could have made the halftime show any more fun for me then dem ’Oo. So cheers, Roger and Pete, and I’ll spare you the obligatory “Hope I die before I get old” wisecrack.

You guys can still rock this fanatic’s world.

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