Last night, talking about Pete Townshend at the Best Buy Theater in New York, Bruce Springsteen told a story about seeing The Who as a teenager in the late ’60s at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall and, soon after, trying to emulate Townshend at his own gig at the St. Rose of Lima school in Freehold. It was a funny story about how Springsteen fell short of his idol by smashing a stolen vase of flowers (instead of his guitar) while standing on his amplifier, but the sentiment was poignant for anyone who has ever picked up the electric guitar to play rock and roll after 1965. Imitating Pete Townshend is both inevitable and futile.
The event was a benefit for the MusiCares MapFund, which provides addiction recovery treatment for musicians and others in the music industry. Springsteen was there to present Townshend with the MusiCares Stevie Ray Vaughan Award for his charitable work with addiction and recovery. (Longtime Who manager Bill Curbishley was also given an award). Though not officially scheduled to perform, Springsteen did, in fact, sing and play on two numbers, and various other musicians also performed with the full touring band of The Who (minus Townshend and Roger Daltrey).
After the band ran through the instrumental overture to “Tommy,” Joan Jett, who is currently opening shows on The Who’s tour, came out to do “Summertime Blues” and “I Can’t Explain.” She has made a career of playing three-chord rock ‘n’ roll, and these two simple but powerful songs fit her style perfectly.
Willie Nile then came on to do “Substitute” and “The Kids Are Alright.” The focus on very early material from The Who by both Jett and Nile really illustrated how good Townshend was as a songwriter right out of the gate.
I’ve always felt a little sorry for Daltrey, having to share the stage with two of the most charismatic performers in the history of rock music (Townshend and Keith Moon), but his turn with the band provided one of the most satisfying moments of the night. After singing another early Who song, “The Seeker,” he led the band through their famous arrangement of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues,” a song absent from Who concerts for decades. At times they played the Live at Leeds version of the song note for note, then veered off into improvised sections, and it was exciting to see everyone onstage taking risks. When it was over, Daltrey commented that it was drummer Zak Starkey’s first time playing the song, and he deserved the mention because the drumming was stellar.
Next out was Billy Idol and, surprisingly, he stole the show. He was the first of the night to veer into later Who material, singing “The Real Me” and “Who Are You,” and his enthusiasm made the songs sound fresh and youthful. He was the only performer of the night other than Townshend to get a standing ovation from the very subdued crowd of industry people.
The only seating at the front of the theater was white couches, perhaps for filming purposes, but it made for a very sedate audience. Daltrey commented that it was like playing to a group of psychiatrists.
After Springsteen gave his speech, he joined the band for “My Generation,” trading verses with Daltrey. It was a solid performance, but the power of “My Generation,” arguably the first punk rock song and a masterpiece of youthful angst and strength, was lost a little, being sung by voices so mature.
After Townshend played a beautiful version of Quadrophenia’s “I’m One,” hugely emphasizing the English accent of the song’s narrator on the lines “I’ve got a Gibson without a case/But I can’t get that even tanned look on my face,” all the performers came out for the finale performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was nowhere near as powerful as when The Who perform it at their concerts due to the absence of the song’s famous synthesizer part.
While it lacked in power, it had its own charm as it appeared to be somewhat off the cuff. The ending was botched, people took unorganized stabs at the lyrics, and it felt more like a rehearsal or jam than the polished, epic number it usually is in concert. Townshend’s acoustic guitar playing saved it.
As Springsteen mentioned in his speech, Townshend is the best rhythm guitar player of all time, and that was absolutely apparent in this performance.
Mike Lustig, the brother of NJArts.net editor Jay Lustig, is a guitar player from West Orange. He has played in area bands Ruth Ruth, Janata and Eve’s Plum, and currently plays blues music in any Jersey bar that will have him.