The Music Of The Who at Carnegie Hall

Michael Dorf presents
The Music of the Who
Carnegie Hall, March 2, 2010

The tribute show is an odd duck in some ways; who’s the audience supposed to be? Is it fans of the artists performing, or fans of the artist being feted? Fans of the artists performing don’t automatically have context or even knowledge of the music being played, while fans of the celebrated artist can be a tough audience. They can be terribly critical. And they can be outright demanding sons of bitches.

The latter statement would accurately describe your average Who fan. We were ridiculously demanding OF THE ACTUAL BAND. There was no way anyone coming on the Carnegie Hall stage was getting off easy tonight, not in front of this crowd.

The other thing that needs to be considered is that Townshend and Daltrey had a very specific dynamic. People have said things like “Well I like the songs I just wish Daltrey wasn’t singing them” and I point out that if Daltrey didn’t sing the songs, no one was going to be singing them. Pete wrote songs for Roger to sing, and Roger interpreted them in a very specific way. I’m sure someone will chime in about how this isn’t unique or special but I’ll assert here that in this case it absolutely is, and is part of what made the Who the Who.

The whole reason I’m giving this tiresome history lesson, boring old fart that I am, is to say by way of preface that these are hard songs to sing and even harder to sing well. I don’t go to these evenings needing straight interpretations of the song to enjoy myself – I loved Kimya Dawson’s modern dance interpretation of “World Leader Pretend” at the R.E.M. event, for example – there just is such a thing as a misguided interpretation, or one that means well but misses the mark. I say all of this so you don’t take my dismissal of your favorite artist’s performance as a condemnation of that artist’s entire body of work.

Now maybe I can get to the actual concert.

The evening opened with a reminder of why these concerts exists, as a choir of teenagers, led by Steven Bernstein (a slide trumpeter) took us through the Overture. I wondered what these teenagers in 2010 thought of the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy. I wondered if they cared. I wondered if they just sang the words or if any of them went and found the record and listened to it and if it resonated with them. They seemed to be having a blast, and I once again felt lucky that I grew up in a time where I could get music as part of a public school education.

Living Color came out and set the tone with a masterful cover of “Eminence Front”. I had forgotten how good that band was. The Ox would have approved of the way that bass line just swang. I’m not a fan of Sondre Lerche but he was a perfect example of someone who brought his own interpretation of the song while still maintaining its essence. “I’m A Boy” was perfect. It wasn’t a straight cover, but he clearly *got* the song and invested it with appropriate angst.

Kaki King, on the other hand, offered an untethered “Pinball Wizard” which had no guts. Seriously, “Pinball Wizard”? Pete has fucked up on that song on more than one occasion. You can’t play “Pinball Wizard” with detached coolness or less than technical precision and expect the song to register. The Postelles were up next, and while everything about them screamed indier-than-thou, sonically, at least, they were faithful. The vocal delivery just didn’t fit. I’ve never seen them so I don’t know if that was their shtick, but it was like hearing ‘I Can’t Explain” sung by Mick Jagger – but Jagger circa 1971, kinda campy. So it didn’t really work, but at least there was some energy on the stage.

When Asaf Avadan opened his mouth and started to sing “Naked Eye,” I knew immediately that I was going to completely love it or violently hate it his version. His voice is not one that’s easily accepted by your ears, and I can’t say that I’d buy his records or go see him, but his interpretation of that song was absolutely brilliant. I am sure this was the most radical cover of “Naked Eye” that I will ever hear in my entire life, but it was also absolutely valid. It’s the one I could have seen Pete and Roger standing and applauding the hardest.

I have a confession to make: all of these years, I assumed that Mose Allison was 1) dead and 2) of African-American descent. I don’t know where I gathered that conclusion from, but boy was I wrong. It was helpful, in a meat-and-potatoes rock history basics sort of way, to hear “Young Man Blues” from the mouth of its creator, but it was also underwhelming. This statement may well position me as a savage.

Bob Mould brought the energy back with a version of “Can’t Reach You” that had every ounce of his being invested in it. The only thing that was missing was a windmill (something missing THE ENTIRE NIGHT. I could get that if Pete had actually been there – but seriously, people – no windmills?!). But it wasn’t a surprise that Bob Mould was going to knock his performance out of the park. My only complaint was that he was not loud enough.

Nicole Atkins, however, could have been hit or miss – but was definitely the former. I appreciated that she dressed for the occasion, and her version of “The Song Is Over” was completely and utterly beautiful. She infused it with flavor but didn’t ruin the essence of the song. Her voice also benefited more than anyone’s from the Carnegie Hall acoustics.

Rich Pagano & the Sugarcane Cups were the house band and they kicked ass. Everything about them was perfect for the music. They were faithful to the original arrangements and brought boatloads of energy to the table. Their solo contribution was an outtake from the Lifehouse Demos, the version of “Love Ain’t For Keeping” from that set. I appreciated that someone brought the obsessive fan element to the table, but that it wasn’t so obscure that no one knew what it was.

Bobby McFarrin got more applause than Bob Mould. I’m sorry, Bobby McFarrin? Again, maybe I’m just some kind of savage but I’m not even sure why he was there. He did a Bobby McFarrin-like interpretation of “My Generation” and I was just not impressed. Like, a Bobby McFarrin imitator could have pulled that off.

Luckily, the Smithereens came on next. And while this was another gimme – how many of you bought that live EP just so you could have that version of “The Seeker” – besides Living Color, they brought the unabashed ROCK to the evening. “The Seeker” was good, it was fine, it was even great – but then they went into a “Sparks” that was so incendiary I started to suspect that perhaps they had bogarted the spot and jammed in a song that they weren’t scheduled to play. (No dice, it was in the program.) It was raw. It was powerful. It was everything that was beautiful and perfect and earthshaking about the Who. That, in my book, earned a standing ovation, and they got one (but not from the same people who applauded Bobby McFarrin).

Matt Nathanson was charming, he was clearly nervous, he was excited to be there. However, he also delivered a terrible version of “The Real Me”. There is no irony anywhere to be found on the Quadrophenia album. There is no irony in that song, and it is not a crowd participation number. (And I won’t even mention the guy on the ironic stand-up snare and kick drum, another thing that could not be more out of place on a song on which Keith Moon sounds like he has grown another 8 arms). I received a barrage of “omg he’s so nice and funny” messages on Twitter after I posted a brief summary of this – I’m sure he is, but he was just out of his element here. I’m sorry I do not like your dude.

Bettye LaVette was another artist that was worth the price of admission. And I know you’re going to tell me that you saw the Kennedy Center thing or you saw her on YouTube and so you know how awesome it is. No. This is where I tell you that you absolutely do not know how awesome it is until you sit there and listen to that woman with that voice and that presence sing “Love, Reign O’er Me” like the song was written for her. I had goosebumps.

Pulling on my flame retardant suit, I will offer that Jason Isbell’s cover of “Behind Blue Eyes” meant well but had no soul, no bite, no yearning. If you choose to play that song at a Who tribute you had better come armed for bear because that song is the essence of the Townshend-Daltrey relationship, and I know that Isbell’s smart enough to know that. I am not arguing that he’s not talented. I’m saying that he didn’t have what it takes to pull off that song.

Conan’s untimely demise means that we once again have Jimmy Vivino’s Fab Faux back in operation on the East Coast. They gave us a solid and competent Tommy medley. My only argument with that it that that interlude in the show was about transcendence and you don’t get transcendence or even close with a band of session guys, no matter how awesome they are. But it was good for someone to come in at that point of the show and play perfect copies of those songs.

Willie Nile. Willie Nile is the only artist – on a night where a very busy crew efficiently gets each artist on and off the stage as quickly as possible – who felt the need to try to talk, to try to rev the crowd up, and to dedicate his song to Pete and Roger – several times. He was also on a crutch, and I have a small suspicion that some pain meds might have been involved – or perhaps he was just loopy. His version of “The Kids Are Alright” I noted as “adequate”.

Robyn Hitchcock came out with Lenny Kaye and Sean Nelson (with whom he had just performed with this past Sunday) for a lovely version of “Substitute,” capped with an “A Quick One” intro (and why no one played THAT I still don’t know).

I have not been a Gaslight Anthem fan because I dislike being a bandwagon jumper, and there were too many people I knew that leapt onto moving vehicles the minute a Mr. B. Springsteen showed up to play with them at Glastonbury (nothing makes me less likely to do something or go somewhere than a bunch of Bruce fans embracing something as one). However, I have been coming around, and tonight definitely helped. I will say that while their version of “Baba O’Riley” (and I love that they basically are covering the Pearl Jam version of “Baba,” and not the Who’s – which is also okay), I thought they were surprisingly subdued for what I’ve seen and heard of them. The performance was a highlight but just a tiny bit underwhelming. It could also have been just the contrast to some of the other acts.

I knew Patti Smith was coming so I wasn’t surprised when Lenny and Tony Shanahan and Jay Dee came out onstage, but I was surprised that they were going to reprise “My Generation” when it had already been done. I had entertained fantasies of her covering “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. My significant other kept trying to lobby enthusiastically for “Magic Bus,” but I suspect that was mostly because he knows how much I hated the song when the Who played it (hell, Entwistle hated playing it). “Carnegie Hall, please forgive me,” Patti invoked with a smile, before crashing into “My Generation”. The tittering audience around me, and the two people (with whom I am personally acquainted) who were the only ones in the entire place standing up for this song indicated to me that most folks had no idea that this version was canon, but I will forgive them.

This is the part in the show where, if the artists being honored were in the building, that they would show their face. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the boys from Shepherd’s Bush as all of the artists from the evening came streaming onto the stage. The organ riff in the background made it clear (at least to anyone who actually knew even the smallest thing about the Who) what the next song was supposed to be. This is also the part where the problem of this being at Carnegie comes into play – people try to be well behaved (except for the friends of Rich Pagano who sat behind us all night, yakking) and the well-behaved means that people don’t stand up when they might want to stand up. Once the crowd was up and clapping, the song began.

And no one onstage knew the words.

When I say “no one knew the words” I really do mean, no one – except the guys in the house band, the Smithereens, and a guy wearing a watch cap that I think might have been Matt Nathanson (but he had lyrics for his number, so that doesn’t necessarily redeem him), and Willie Nile (maybe) – knew the words to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Everyone was standing there with lyric sheets – and even then no one would come up and take a verse or even a line. And I mean, I get it, it’s Carnegie Hall and stuff, but the only conclusion I could draw was that NO ONE KNEW THE FUCKING LYRICS TO WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN, and before you make any sort of excuses, NO ONE NEEDED A FUCKING LYRIC SHEET FOR FUCKING ROSALITA at the Springsteen tribute, AND there was the added nerve case of the actual artist being onstage at the same time which would be a legitimate reason for being intimidated and hanging back a little.

[Addendum: Sean Nelson was singing but for some reason refused to commandeer a mic.]

( I could go off on a tirade here about people not having any business being in the business of rock and roll if they don’t know the fucking canon, but that is me likely making too much of something that is not there, and it will become too much “old man hollers at cloud” so I will stop.)

Suffice it to say that the encore was a trainwreck and while I videotaped it, there’s no point in me putting it up because all you will hear is 1) me singing when I realize no one there is singing to illustrate the point that it’s not a difficult song to sing and 2) me talking about how no one is singing and 3) more of #1. Props go to Nicole Atkins for knowing where the power scream was supposed to be and running to the mic to nail it.

While the evening was mostly solid, I was glad Pete and Roger were not there for this encore. We needed a star, we needed a musical director, we needed someone other than Willie Nile waving his crutch around and trying to be elder statesman. The people in front of me who got up as soon as Patti was done were, in hindsight, very smart.

All of that said, I still love these shows and love the causes they benefit. I’ll be back.