Shortly after Roger Daltrey belted out the last note during his full performance of the Who's 1969 album Tommy in Broomfield last night, the legendary frontman summed up the record's significance. "I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did ... It is a classical piece of work," Daltrey declared. "That's how we treat it," he added, before likening the work to a piece by Mozart. Supported by a four-member band that included Simon Townshend, younger brother of Who guitarist Pete, Daltrey showed plenty of reverence to the seminal concept album during his high-energy appearance at the 1STBANK Center. From the opening notes of the work's overture to the final chords of "We're Not Gonna Take It," the show served as a live paean to one of rock's early works of ambitious scope and careful complexity.
Supplemented by simple animated shorts beamed onto an overhead screen, the song-by-song recreation of the album highlighted its impressive ambition and its core genius; the constant pace and keen attention to detail served to spotlight the basic elements of what would go on to become a full-fledged Broadway musical.
But Sunday's show was more than a tribute to the album, or even to the hour-plus worth of tunes from the rest of the Who catalogue. The showcase served as an impressive tribute to Daltrey himself, to his place in the canon of storied rock frontmen. His voice was ragged at times during the show that spanned more than two hours, and Daltrey chatted casually between songs about the two years worth of recent throat surgery that, in effect, salvaged his singing voice.
But the near-capacity crowd didn't seem to mind the occasional false starts and few missed high notes. The 67-year-old Daltrey had the audience enraptured from his first set of vocals on "It's a Boy," and it seemed as if many of the grizzled Who fans in the audience could relate to the ravages of age. Neither did the absence of John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend dim the enthusiasm of a crowd that seemed to hang on every note.
Welsh singer/songwriter Paul Freeman helped stoke the crowd's fervor with his opening act, delivering material that seemed to draw equally from folk structures and dense strumming styles that owed much to Townshend. While Freeman's act didn't boast any moments that couldn't be found during a higher quality open mic night at a coffee shop, his affable presence and banter with the crowd helped set the mood.
Still, the energy seemed to ramp up by a factor of one hundred as soon as Daltrey appeared, lit with a sole, stark spotlight before the band broke in the overture from Tommy. On the screen over the band, simplistic images of fertilized eggs morphed into spheres that looked very much like pinballs. The circles morphed into the eyes of birds flying over the World War 2 battlefields where Tommy's father, Captain Walker has gone missing. Apart from these visual cues, the narrative onscreen was largely abstract.
Unlike the Broadway musical version of the piece, there were no actors onstage to take the roles of Mrs. Walker, Tommy, the Gypsy or the Doctor. Instead, the story came through in the high-volume output of the band. Daltrey and Simon Townshend shared vocal duties in telling the story of the traumatized deaf, blind and mute Tommy; his parents scarred by war and sin; and the hordes who adopt the "Pinball Wizard" as their messiah.
The ambiance of innocence and hope that spilled out of Daltrey's lyrics on "1921" was almost palpable; the hypnotic allure of the character described in "The Acid Queen" was impossible to miss. The torture of "Smash the Mirror" was spelled out in bent electric guitar notes, and the twisted, carnival sounds of Keith Moon's "Tommy's Holiday Camp" made for an evocative departure from the rest of score, penned mostly by Pete Townshend.
While Daltrey's voice showed occasional marks of his recent surgery in weak high notes, he belted out most of the score with aplomb. The crowd predictably roared for "Pinball Wizard," but Daltrey's delivery was nuanced and compelling on lesser-known tunes from the score like "Welcome" and "Sensation." Simon Townshend, bassist Jon Button, keyboardist Loren Gold, drummer Scott Devours and guitarist/arranger Frank Simes offered more-than-competent backup, recreating Moon's explosive percussion, Entwistle's elastic bass and the explosive lead exploits of Pete Townshend.
After wrapping up Tommy, Daltrey didn't shy from the most vocally acrobatic numbers from the rest of the Who catalog, delivering "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Teenage Wasteland" with plenty of conviction. Citing the need to perform lower register songs toward the end of the show, he also offered a medley of Johnny Cash songs that included "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ring of Fire."
After a stunning version of "Baba O'Riley," the vocal strain of the night finally got to Daltrey. With the rest of the band off the stage, Daltrey took up a ukulele, and tried to soldier his way through "Blue, Red and Grey." The high registers were too much, and he admitted, "I'm not gonna make it" before thanking the audience and making his exit. The failed foray into the high notes demanded by the instrument didn't make his departure any less dignified, nor did it dim the enthusiastic applause from the crowd of largely grizzled Who fans, many of whom left the venue in wonder that Daltrey had aged so well.
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Personal Bias: I saw Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle perform Quadrophenia at McNichols Arena when I was in high school. Even with Daltrey's energy on Sunday night, that show will remain the definitive Who experience in my memory. By the way: Before launching into the medley of Johnny Cash tunes, Daltrey recalled how he'd sing those songs as a fifteen-year-old worker in a sheet metal factory. Random Detail: A couple of loud fans behind me were screaming and dancing during the entire two-and-a-half-hour show. When Daltrey sang, "Do I smash the mirror" during the aptly titled "Smash the Mirror," they didn't hold back their advice. "SMASH IT!" they both yelled in unison.
Roger Daltrey 1STBANK Center - 10/16/2011 Broomfield, CO
01. "Overture" 02. "It's a Boy" 03. "1921" 04. "Amazing Journey" 05. "Sparks" 06. "Eyesight to the Blind" 07. "Christmas" 08. "Cousin Kevin" 09. "The Acid Queen" 10. "Underture" 11. "Do You Think It's All Right?" 12. "Fiddle About" 13. "Pinball Wizard" 14. "There's a Doctor" 15. "Go to the Mirror!" 16. "Tommy Can You Hear Me?" 17. "Smash the Mirror" 18. "Sensation" 19. "Miracle Cure" 20. "Sally Simpson" 21. "I'm Free" 22. "Welcome" 23. "Tommy's Holiday Camp" 24. "We're Not Gonna Take It" 25. "I Can See for Miles" 26. "Behind Blue Eyes" 27. "Days of Light" 28. "Going Mobile" 29. "Freedom Ride" 30. Johnny Cash Medley - "I Got Stripes"/"Folsom Prison Blues"/ "There You Go"/ "Train of Love" / "Ring of Fire" 31. "Who Are You" 32. "Young Man Blues" 33. "Baba O'Riley" 34. "Blue, Red and Grey" (attempted)
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