Life is a crapshoot, and the odds of disaster only get higher as you get older. For those of us who live quiet lives far from the spotlight, our risks run pretty mundane: getting on the freeway, frying a turkey, hiking in Alaska. When you’re a band that’s been around for over half a century and still a touring act, you’re dealing with potential chaos on a scale most of us can’t imagine.
But who are any of us to doubt The Who? Their ambition runs deep, and even though the idea of doing a symphonic arena tour at this stage in their career is a weird flex, it’s one that didn’t seem completely unreasonable when it was announced. Yes, there was plenty of room for error—the mind may be strong but the body can be weak, arenas are not known for their stunning symphonic acoustics, you’re working with new orchestras for every show—but life is a crapshoot, after all.
This review, as it were, could have been completely different. It was completely different, in fact, until eight songs into the set when the band walked off stage for an impromptu huddle. When Pete Townshend returned to the stage a brief bit later, it was to inform the audience that the show was being cut short on account of singer Roger Daltrey’s voice going out. They were 40 minutes into their set, and things were just done; the crowd was told to hold onto their tickets, Townshend promised the band would be back, and that was that.
It’s tempting to say then that Houston was a bust for the band, but I’m not sure that’s true.
Symphonic music is based on structure, on notes on paper. Rock music is windmill guitar strokes and solos that on any given night don’t perfectly conform to the up and downbeats of a conductor’s baton. Where they meet is the passion that comes along with learning your instrument and bending it to your will, and to taking the music, whether on the page or in your head, and making it something that brings out emotion in the listener.
No, the symphonic material of the show didn’t always work with what the rock half of the equation was playing, but when it did it was magical. In fact, it is probably the optimal way to hear the material from Tommy because it gives those songs the gravitas that the phrase “rock opera” deserves, even if you’re singing about a pinball wizard. It is high culture and low culture meeting in the middle, shaking hands, and agreeing to take the risk together, in hopes that the end result is sublime.
It cannot be stressed enough how daring the decision to do a symphonic tour is. At a rock show, the sheer loudness can drown out a band member unable to hold their own due to some bad luck with their health. On a show with the dynamics of a symphony, the ugly parts are too open to ignore. You can look past them, but you can’t pretend they don’t exist.
So yes, while Roger’s voice was pitchy and Pete’s solos fought too hard with what was going on around him at times, the eight songs Houston got to hear were actually pretty great, including a version of “Eminence Front” that was as great as an unintended finale as one could ask for in that circumstance.
But beyond the music, the reason this show wasn’t a bust for the band was because the fans understood the situation. There was no booing. There was no stamping of feet in anger. Were people bummed? Absolutely. Tickets were not cheap and working a midweek concert into modern life is not always simple. Yet the crowd showed Townshend plenty of love, treating him not as the messenger of bad news but as a friend in a bad situation.
Walking around after the house lights had come up revealed a crowd pretty much still in the mood to have a good time. People headed to the concession stands for drinks and snacks. They visited with friends to talk about what just happened. Some even went back to the merch table to pick up a few things. The crowd got it. Sometimes you buy a concert ticket and the show gets canceled before the doors open. Sometimes it goes off without a hitch. And sometimes you get a brief glimpse of greatness before things come crashing down.
In recent interviews, Townshend has mentioned that age has been on his mind. While his songwriting remains broad, it’s no surprise that the guy who wrote “My Generation” would at least spend some time meditating on growing old. Yet the band has been careful not to lean on the narrative that this tour is a grand finale or a retirement. Even if the band does call it a wrap after this round of touring, surviving members have expressed interest in continuing their solo careers.
For those fans who caught those bits of brilliance last night, there is hope that The Who will make a triumphant return at some point in the future. Will they? You never know. Every time something like this happens there’s a worry that the make-up date will never come. Beyond the health-centric concerns, there’s also the question of fitting a return into the band’s schedule and the venue’s availability. That’s the thing about age and taking risks. It would be unwise to doubt The Who’s passion and their desire, but life is a crapshoot, and we’re all only getting older.