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Arts and Entertainment

Roger Daltrey @ Orpheum Theater 10/17/09

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Just four lines into the LA stop on Roger Daltrey’s “Use It Or Lose It” solo tour - so named for the singer’s desire to keep his instrument in shape for a planned burst of activity from his “other” band, the Who, in the coming year - he seemed in danger of losing it. He was performing the rarely heard gem “Blue, Red and Grey”, originally sung by Who guitarist Pete Townshend in a near-falsetto, when he opened his mouth and nothing came out.

It was a nervous moment, especially with the knowledge that Daltrey’s ailing throat had forced a few last-minute cancellations during the Who’s 2007 tour. But he plowed on, muttering “we’ll come back to that one,” picked up an acoustic guitar, and led his band through a dramatically re-arranged version of “Who Are You.” Now in a more familiar vocal range, he managed to warm up and start belting it out. And from that point, through the whole two-hour show, everything was more than fine.

It was an unusual display of vulnerability for a guy who’s spent his career as the very picture of rock and roll machismo. Of all the great rock bands, The Who most completely bridged the gap between Apollo and Dionysus, between their spiritual and animal natures, between artistic ambition and wanton, juvenile destruction. They were high-concept and intellectual, extraordinarily innovative, and held one of the highest levels of musicianship in British rock. They were also capable of savage violence. The most face-first aggressive of all British Invasion-era bands, they put out an intensely loud, feedback-fueled racket and finished their shows by smashing everything up; every English person making records in 1965 comes off a bit of a wuss by comparison. And those opposing traits only grew more intense as they moved into the seventies.

Though Townshend himself was responsible for much of that duality, he couldn’t have pulled it off as the singer for his own band. He needed a foil, a brash, alpha-male front man capable of putting forth complex ideas with a boot to the head. And he found one in Roger Daltrey, who went on to become one of the most iconic rock stars of all time, The Chest With The Golden Mane. In the group’s early days, he showed an unusual ability for covering American blues and R&B, delivering his lines with an exclamation point where most English singers were working in question marks and semi-colons; there was nothing tentative about him. He looked like he could beat your ass, and sounded like it too. That brute-force vocal style worked as a counterbalance to the themes of spiritual longing and alienation in the lyrics, kept things from getting too poncy.

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At 64, though he keeps his shirt on and the curly locks have been shorn, he still looks fantastic, and can still swing a mic with authority. He does show some hesitation around the highest notes, and there’s a tad more gravel than we’re used to, but he’s still highly recognizable as the guy that sang on all those amazing songs. Doing them on stage without Pete Townshend presents an immediate risk of unflattering comparison, since Townshend remains an incendiary guitarist and presence, as witnessed at the Nokia Theater last fall. To his credit, Daltrey’s put together a great crew of side players, skilled musicians with the ability to bash at the wall when necessary, including Pete’s brother Simon Townshend on guitar and vocals. Drummer Scott Devours was particularly impressive, laying down a highly effective interpretation of the late Keith Moon’s spastic beats. The whole package was more satisfyingly Who-like than the actual Who were at the LA Coliseum in 1989, when they were bloated to the size of a symphony orchestra, trying to puff up the sound with synthesizers and horns but sounding tinier than the original four-piece band ever did.

Though Daltrey’s not shy about pulling some of the band’s proven warhorses out of the hat - “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Baba O’Riley,” “The Real Me” and fan favorite “Naked Eye”- much of the Who material chosen for the set hasn’t been performed live in some time, if ever. Sixties singles “Pictures of Lily” and “I Can See For Miles” were power pop at its finest and purest, while the covers of “Young Man Blues” and “Summertime Blues” as revived on Live At Leeds, gave the band a chance to get their tornado on. The 1975 AM radio trifle “Squeeze Box” was goofy fun, with the crowd lustily singing the chorus of “In and out and in and out…” One of the best performances of the night was given to the roadtrip anthem “Going Mobile”, with Simon T. singing lead and Daltrey adding bleats of harmonica under the guitar solo.

Daltrey’s solo career was represented by a pair of songs from the 1992 album Rocks In The Head, and the minor 1980 hit “Without Your Love”. Puzzlingly, he also included two tracks from Largo, an obscure concept album produced by members of the Hooters, which Daltrey doesn’t even appear on. These tracks, along with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” were given energetic versions and received politely by the audience but it was hard to shake the feeling of expectation, hoping that one of your favorite songs might be just around the corner.

Toward the end of the night, Daltrey kept his promise and came back to the song that had eluded him earlier. He nailed it with a delicate, chill-inducing rendition. It felt like a victory over circumstance and added a layer of poignancy to what may be the Who’s most openly optimistic song. “Some people go for those sultry evenings, sipping cocktails in the blue, red and grey,” sang Daltrey, gently strumming a ukulele, “but I like every minute of the day.”