The Who Live at San Francisco’s Outside Lands

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Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend at Outside Lands, August 2017 (Photo by Marc Fong, used with permission)

“You’re young, and we’re not young,” declared Pete Townshend by way of introduction as The Who closed San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park on Aug. 13. It was true that, for the most part, the dozens of acts at the three-day event were young emerging rockers and rappers in their twenties and thirties, and much of the audience was younger still. It’s not every festival where a thirty-something couple complains to you about the number of teenagers talking during performances.

If the Who were daunted by the tens of thousands that filled the park’s Polo Fields for the fest’s finale, they didn’t show it. Townshend windmilled his way through the crowd-pleasing selection of hits and Tommy/Quadrophenia highlights with committed if somewhat grim determination. Roger Daltrey still hit most of the notes in his operatic-for-rock range, though he engaged in just a bit of modified microphone twirling during “5:15.”

Things have changed a lot since the Who first played San Francisco (including legendary gigs at the Fillmore and the nearby Monterey Pop Festival) in 1967, a half-century ago. Keith Moon’s been gone nearly 40 years, and John Entwistle for 15. The drummer and bassist are now represented by some of the film clips and stills that form the backdrop to much of the Who’s show. Uncharitable purists might call this version of the band the ’alf ’Oo, as only half the classic lineup remains.

Still, the other musicians who now flesh out the touring Who on assorted guitars, keyboards and percussion gave the classics body without intruding on the unquestioned stars of the show. And a couple do have close connections to the Who and the era in which the band rose to greatness. Zak Starkey, son of Ringo, has by now drummed with the band longer than Moon did, and is established as more of a fan favorite than the actual British Invasion drummer who replaced Moon, former Small Faces stickman Kenney Jones. Townshend’s younger brother Simon’s on one of the guitars, though most of the audience probably didn’t recognize this before the band introductions at the end.

Yet the spotlight remains, figuratively and usually literally, on Pete and Roger. Townshend’s actually playing better, and certainly with more volume and electricity, than he did on the Who’s first reunion tour in 1989. He’s also handling most of the stage announcements, supplying much of the spice in a set that doesn’t contain many surprises (and no songs more recent than “Eminence Front,” from 1982’s It’s Hard album). “We don’t want to go there again, fucking seriously,” he implored after remembering how many U.S. men were fighting in Vietnam when the Who first played San Francisco shortly before the Summer of Love. “This red guitar kills fascists,” he observed later, to the delight of the heavily left-leaning Bay Area crowd.

Pete Townshend at Outside Lands, August 2017 (Photo by Marc Fong, used with permission)

And as for the weather—so foggy and cool, as it often is in the city in August, that it often seemed like actual rain was falling when the lights hit certain angles—“you gotta be tough to do [this] shit in weather like this.” A fair point, but if it’s that cold up there (and it wasn’t his only complaint about the chill), why are you doing the show without a coat, Pete?

At times, though not often, Daltrey’s voice could not soar above the hard rock backup and remain distinct. He hit his stride, though, on “Join Together,” and made up for a failure to end “Love Reign O’er Me” with a strident scream by uttering a super-low “me.” And it’s refreshing to see him play guitar, if rather submerged in the mix, for much of the set, as well as whip out the harmonica for “Baba O’Riley” and (more surprisingly) Quadrophenia’s “I Am One,” even if the instrument’s not too audible on the latter tune.

Watch them perform “Baba O’Riley”

As when Paul McCartney played the same field at Outside Lands four years ago, there weren’t many deviations from the usual set list or familiar arrangements, and yet less in the way of deep catalog than McCartney offers. Yet there were some off-the-beaten-track items for fans who’ve heard faves like “I Can See For Miles,” “Who Are You,” and “I Can’t Explain” many times. “The Rock,” an opulent instrumental from Quadrophenia, was done proud by the Who touring ensemble as an odd montage of conflicts, presidents and British royalty spanning the last few decades played out on the screen behind the stage. “Naked Eye,” an early-’70s concert staple that didn’t find official release until 1974’s outtakes collection Odds and Sods, also made a welcome appearance.

Watch the Who’s opening number, “I Can’t Explain”

Related: What was it like to see the Who 50 years ago?

Townshend’s reference to a hip Quadrophenia mod who turns out to be a bellboy, raising hopes among the faithful that the Who would play “Bell Boy,” one of his most underrated compositions, was a false alarm, the band going into the more familiar “5:15” instead. Earlier in the show, “My Generation”—introduced by Townshend as “a song I wrote when I was 19. I was very, very angry”— suddenly changed tempo and, yet more unexpectedly, detoured into a bit of It’s Hard’s “Cry If You Want.”

The group’s following remains as fanatical as ever, even in the absence of new material for more than a decade. The friends I went with knew someone in the crowd who’d seen the band 148 times. A couple of students who took my community education course on the Who got in line at dawn to ensure front-row views. One took his seven-year-old son, who had to physically be passed above the front rows to join his father—and that a good three-and-a-half hours before the band went on, so intense was the competition for space.

“I’m doing it again,” groused/boasted an amused Townshend after reflecting how he sometimes wonders if he should keep performing, and one suspects Daltrey will keep going too, as long as his voice holds out. As the Who ramped up to the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and Roger filled in fuzzy lyrics as the band vamped (“people are marching all over the world” was one line), the suspense built—would he hit the trademark scream that kicks off the final verse? Indeed, he yelled so hard you feared it would be his last. But it won’t.

Watch the Who performing “Behind Blue Eyes” at Outside Lands


Richie Unterberger
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  1. G.
    #1 G. 14 August, 2017, 19:46

    Pete didn’t complain he was cold, he said the crowd was tough to do the festival in the cold. My husband and I were first in line at 5am! And while it was chilly, the long way was worth it! Go Pete and Roger!!!

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  2. Gloria
    #2 Gloria 14 August, 2017, 23:15

    Pete was not complaining about himself playing in the cold! He said the crowd was tough to be going the festival in cold weather.

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