Review: Townshend celebrates 71st birthday as The Who hits Oakland

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The Who

OAKLAND — An amazing journey is nearing its end for The Who.

The British rock group plotted its “The Who Hits 50” tour in 2015, but after frontman Roger Daltrey’s health battles and a Morrissey amount of postponements, the band finally played Thursday at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

Daltrey has referred to the tour as the band’s “long goodbye,” suggesting it could be among the group’s final stops in the Bay Area. The occasion also marked guitarist Pete Townshend’s 71st birthday, but he still showed enough spry to remind fans of the young “mod” who started The Who a half-century ago. He deployed his trademark windmill guitar move early and often.

When a fan shouted a song title request, Townshend replied, “We’re playing what’s called ‘the hits.'” Later, Daltrey joked that the tour is “The Who Hits 50” to signify the number of hits in America, but Townshend quickly corrected him. “No, it’s 50 years and four hits,” he joked.

The setlist was a retrospective of some of its most famous cuts, spanning from its 1965 debut LP, My Generation, running through the 1980s with “You Better You Bet” and “Eminence Front,” but ignoring the band’s only post-1982 album, 2006’s Endless Wire.

But they did deliver the hits, including opener “Who Are You” from 1978’s album of same name as well as the final two songs of the night, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and many more.

On “Baba,” Townshend finished with one of his signature moves, firing the final notes with a split-leg leap into the air toward center stage. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was a capstone moment for Daltrey, who twirled the microphone by its cord before catching it. For the song’s distinct howl – known from the start of CBS’ “CSI: Miami” — Daltrey crunched himself into a ball, roaring out the note.

The band loosened up as the night wore on, with some of the early songs feeling like perfunctory readings, although still classics.

Yet perhaps the best moment of the night came not with the group’s biggest hits, but with selections from its rock opera Quadrophenia. First came the instrumental “The Rock,” which was set to a video montage recapping news and headlines from throughout the band’s history with a focus on American conflicts. It gave the weight and power of The Who being an enduring force despite all of this conflict swirling in the world.

At the height of the song, Townshend’s guitar crash and solo jolted fans through the events of 9/11 and carried to the present, including the Occupy Movement and November’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

It was followed by “Love Reign O’er Me,” climaxing as drummer Zak Starkey smashed a roll that lead into Daltrey unleashing a wail.

Parts of the show felt as planned and plotted as The Who’s rock operas. It was the spontaneous and unexpected moments that showed why The Who has endured for a half-century.

If it does turn out to be the group’s final show in the Bay Area, they went out with a setlist of hits that defined who, in fact, they were.

Setlist
Who Are You
The Seeker
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
My Generation
Squeeze Box
Behind Blue Eyes
Bargain
Join Together
You Better You Bet
I’m One
The Rock
Love Reign O’er Me
Eminence Front
Amazing Journey / Sparks
The Acid Queen
Pinball Wizard
See Me, Feel Me
Baba O’Riley
Won’t Get Fooled Again

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