Concert review: The Who at Nationwide Arena

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Just two songs into the Who's concert at a crowded Nationwide Arena on Friday, something caught the eye of a bemused Pete Townshend. "They brought me a chair!" the guitarist exclaimed after spotting a small stool that had been delivered just feet from his microphone.

Needless to say, it was removed in short order.

The legendary British group, in the midst of what its members have referred to as its final tour, might be nearing the end, but Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey weren't quite ready to kick their heels up just yet. Instead, the pair pumped ragged life into opener "I Can't Explain," where Daltrey whipped his microphone cord as though it were the propeller on a Cessna and Townshend swung his arm like the long hand of a clock, drawing out chunky, windmill power chords.

With the deaths of original members Keith Moon and John Entwistle, the Who now bears little resemblance to its founding lineup. Daltrey and Townshend performed here supported by a six-piece backing crew, a sprawling collective anchored by the steadying hand of its rhythm section, drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino.

Despite the updated roster, the musicians' attentions remained firmly on the past, with a career-spanning setlist that doubled as a greatest hits collection and video projections that flashed photos of the band members as much younger men. It's a sense of nostalgia that bled into Townshend's between-song banter, which included tales of everything from late drummer Moon supergluing furniture to the ceiling of a hotel room to the group's decision to include a mini-opera on its sophomore album, A Quick One, from 1966. "Back in [the 1960s] everything was mini - the cars and the skirts," the guitarist said, and laughed.

On those rare moments modernity intervened - such as when Townshend spoke of Jimi Hendrix giving way to the likes of Kanye West - the audience blanched, greeting mention of the rapper's name with a hearty chorus of boos.

This focus on the past brought Daltrey's current struggles into even greater relief.

Earlier this month the band postponed a trio of shows to allow the frontman to rest his swollen vocal cords, and it often appeared as though he were pacing himself to prevent backsliding. On songs like "Join Together" and "You Better You Bet," Daltrey, 71, whose voice has grown thicker and less pliable with time, allowed the backup singers to do much of the heavy lifting. Additionally, there were frequent times throughout the evening where he extended the microphone into the audience to let the throng belt out the chorus.

Townshend, in contrast, required no such assistance. The guitarist drove "Baba O'Riley" with rough-edged riffs that cut like a bow saw, took charge on a cantankerous "Eminence Front" and introduced some welcome menace into Tommy's "Sparks," cranking out crushing chords as Daltrey shook a pair of tambourines like a shaman lost in the midst of some incantation.

In those moments, which also included a celebratory "Pinball Wizard" and a fierce, feral "The Seeker," the acquired years appeared to wash away, and it was nearly possible to close one's eyes and be transported "Quantum Leap"-style to the early 1970s. "I won't get to get what I'm after/ Till the day I die," Daltrey growled on the latter, sounding, in that moment at least, as though he were still eons from beginning the search.