The Who – It Was Once Only Ten Strings

This is the one band I see with trepidation.

The band was invincible for a decade after their first single (“I Can’t Explain” in 1965), and I went all in. Top choice.

Their show I saw in 1975 still resonates. Keith Moon died in 1978 and it seemed unlikely they’d recover from the loss of a critical quarter of the band and one of the most influential drummers in history. They soldiered on with Kenney Jones, but as Roger Daltrey revealed in his recent autobiography it was not a great fit. Still, some of their gigs in that era were noteworthy.

December 1975, Buffalo NY

I had a chance to interview John Entwistle in the early 1980s (ostensibly about the release of the band’s authorized biography “Before I Get Old”) and he pointed out that there had never been old rock stars, so “we are figuring it out as we go along.” By 2002 he figured it out and was dead in a Las Vegas hotel room, with grams of coke and hookers in his wake. A few days later the band soldiered on with a scheduled gig at the Hollywood Bowl and a viable replacement bassist in Pino Palladino. The gig proved the adage that The Who’s best gigs are when the band is angry.

But each time I’d head to their next gig I feared The Who had become like the boxer that did not know when to hang up the gloves. But The Who delivered, and it wasn’t just nostalgia.

At Oldchella in 2016 they were vibrant, and Townshend later admitted seeing the positive reaction of a far younger audience renewed his vigor to…soldier on.

October 2016, Indio CA

In San Diego the other night the band showed they still had lots of fight in them.

Buttressed by a huge orchestra with plenty of strings, the show was great. And somewhat uncharacteristically Townshend was in a happy mood. He had come off a rousing celebration of Tommy at a benefit for La Jolla Playhouse a couple nights earlier (where the musical debuted in 1992 and soared to improbable heights on Broadway and globally). Also, Townshend probably did some sailing in the glorious SoCal weather and he seemed to be genuinely moved by the talent of the San Diego orchestra (“they risked going deaf to play with us”).

The first half dozen songs were a stirring summary of Tommy that left the crowd uplifted. Any concerns that the orchestra would result in a softening of the band’s rough edges were moot; instead all the additional instrumentation gave the songs more heft. Thereafter, a deep catalog track “Imagine a Man” was a great surprise.

Townshend invited the orchestra to get tea, leaving the seven piece band to run through a couple early hits including “Substitute” and “I Can See For Miles.”

In another surprise, then everyone but The Two left the stage and the pair assayed their massive hit “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with only an acoustic guitar accompaniment. An ambitious move indeed, and it was arresting. Another gripping track from the same album followed, with violin and cello adding lovely tension to “Behind Blue Eyes.”

A couple new tracks from the forthcoming album were sprinkled through the evening: “Hero Ground Zero” and “Ball and Chain.” There aren’t many bands that started when The Who did and are still brave enough to put out an album’s worth of new music.

The show rounded the clubhouse turn with five tracks from Quadrophenia, of which the instrumental “The Rock” was the highpoint.

The concert ended two and half energetic hours later with a superb “Baba O’Riley.” The violin on the original version was brilliantly recreated onstage, by the choirmaster and her four strings.

Daltrey struggled a few times to replicate screams he hit easily in his prime, but he and Townshend grinned at the inevitability. The crowd was forgiving, because all the energy earlier showed us that The Two did not phone it in.

(photos by Brad Auerbach)




Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.