It started not with a roar, but an explanation.
“This is a really special piece of music to me. We’ve never actually played it the real way it was supposed to be played onstage. Tonight, we’re going to play it with the respect that it deserves.”
With that, Roger Daltrey scooped up a pair of tambourines and, with his stunningly good five-piece band, launched into the familiar “Overture” of one of the most beloved rock operas ever crafted.
On the second night of a two month tour designed specifically to showcase “Tommy,” Daltrey, 67, and his crew, including Pete Townshend’s look-and-sound-alike younger brother Simon on guitar, slashed through the 70-minute opus with chaotic nuance.
Daltrey, tan and trim in black pants and a white button-down shirt, whipped his microphone in rhythm with the thunderous drums of “Amazing Journey,” his voice mostly thick and muscular for this first half of a two-set show.
A video screen behind the band – as well as the standard pair flanking the stage at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park – rolled with animated video to complement the story of “that deaf, dumb, blind kid.”
Black and red cars morphed into dancing soldiers during “1921,” while a blinking amber eye accompanied the massive drum fills of “Sparks.”
At the first “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” refrain, the mostly middle-aged crowd of about 6,000 responded rapturously, their memories of dog-eared LP sleeves and worn grooves on their (original) vinyl versions of “Tommy” no doubt flooding back.
While all of Daltrey’s band – particularly second lead guitarist and music director Frank Simes – were amazing to hear during this musical workout, it was a joy watching drummer Scott Devours throughout the show.
During the majestic “Pinball Wizard,” as Townshend and Simes faced off with acoustic and electric guitars, Devours looked positively giddy that he was playing Keith Moon’s legendary drum fills – a task he handled masterfully.
If Daltrey’s genuine purpose for trotting “Tommy” out is to faithfully recreate its musical complexities, consider this attempt a triumph.
Pete Townshend’s composing genius is most notable in the stylistic swings among “Go to the Mirror!” – with Simon Townshend’s higher range blending sweetly with Daltrey’s rugged tone – into the country lilt of “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” into, a few songs later, the serrated guitar strains of “I’m Free.”
Daltrey sang from the gut on that one and in his robust commands during “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” suggesting that his recent throat surgery to remove a pre-cancerous growth has optimized his power.
After “Tommy” closed in a furious climax of flashing strobe lights and screaming guitars, Daltrey introduced the band and headed into round two, old-school style, with no intermission.
An obviously much looser presentation found the engaging singer strapping on an electric guitar for a galloping version of “I Can See for Miles” and adroitly leading “Behind Blue Eyes” from its somber first half into its explosive second act.
Daltrey clearly enjoyed chatting with the crowd about his young adult days as a sheet metal worker – a long-ago career that he said inspired the jaunty “Days of Light” – and, after The Who broke through, his fortuitous run-in with a then-unknown Leo Sayer, who penned almost all of the songs on Daltrey’s 1973 solo debut.
Other selections at Thursday’s show, such as “Gimme a Stone,” were played, Daltrey said, simply because it was “great fun” to pull out more obscure songs.
By the latter part of the second set, Daltrey’s voice wasn’t quite as hearty on the high notes. But give the guy credit for revealing his love of Johnny Cash with a splendid medley including “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues” in deep-throated twang mode.
It would be impossible to walk away from this Daltrey combo show feeling unfulfilled. But almost even better was seeing how much Daltrey still respects his band’s roots.