The Who, down to just Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, kicked off a North American tour at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl Monday, just four days after cofounder and bassist John Entwistle died of an apparent heart attack.
Having earlier announced their intention to go on with the tour as a "tribute...to an irreplaceable friend," Daltrey and Townshend, both dressed in black, received a standing ovation as they took the stage for a two-and-half-hour set of Who classics.
"Tonight we play for John Entwistle," a surprisingly cheerful Daltrey told the crowd. The singer said the show would be a celebration of Entwistle's life and not a funeral service. "He's the true spirit of rock 'n' roll, and he lives on in all the music we play."
Filling in for "the Ox"--as Entwistle was known--was Welsh session player Pino Palladino, who previously worked with Townshend on his solo projects. As Daltrey and Townshend launched the high-energy show with "I Can't Explain," "Substitute," and an explosive rendition of "Who Are You," Palladino stood in the background, hidden in shadow and clad in black.
Entwistle, 57, was found dead in his Las Vegas hotel room on Thursday, a day before the Hall of Fame rock band was scheduled to kick off its three-month summer trek at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The bassist had been taking medication for a heart condition and is thought to have died in his sleep of a heart attack. There was no sign of drugs or foul play, but toxicology tests are not expected for a few weeks.
Instead of scrapping the tour altogether, Daltrey and Townshend were determined to go on with the show--saying that's what Entwistle would have wanted--while acknowledging that there was also a business angle to them doing so too.
"I simply believe we have a duty to go on, to ourselves, ticket buyers, staff, promoters, big and little people," Townshend said in a message on his Website on Saturday.
To defuse any criticism, Entwistle's son, Christopher, also posted a message on Townshend's site backing the surviving members' decision to soldier on.
After an opening set by the Counting Crows, the houselights went down. Before the Who came out, the tribute to Entwistle began with huge video screens playing footage of the threesome rehearsing in the final days leading up to the tour. The fans roared every time they saw the bassist, who was famed for his restrained stage presence and tremendous bass lines, which anchored the Who's decibel-smashing sound--unlike the instrument -smashing antics of Daltrey, Townshend and original drummer Keith Moon (who died of an accidental overdose in 1978).
After a few scorching numbers, Townshend lightened things up, comparing the Hollywood Bowl's shell to a "white vagina" and the giant acoustic spheres hanging above him to a "testicle factory." He also joked how Los Angeles was a city "full of emptiness, deep rivers of shallow nothingness"--the perfect place to kick off a tour that also had to go on from a financial standpoint.
"I think you know, probably more than anybody, what the show business side of all this stuff is, and we do feel comfortable to be here tonight," Townshend said, apparently trying to blunt criticism from those who said the band was playing too soon after Entwistle's death.
But despite his and Daltrey's carefree appearance on stage, the guitarist made clear that they were indeed mourning the loss of their bass player.
"For fans that have followed us for many years, this is going to be very difficult," Townshend said. "We understand. We're not pretending that nothing's happened."
The band--which also consisted of keyboard player John "Rabbit" Bundrick, drummer Zak Starkey (the son of Ringo Starr) and Townshend's youngest brother, Simon, on backing vocals and acoustic guitar--tore through a set that included such radio staples as "Baba O'Riley," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Love, Reign O'er Me," "The Kids Are Alright" and the 1965 anthem "My Generation," with Palladino admirably mimicking Entwistle's famous lead bass riffs.
For the encore, the Who did a medley from the 1969 rock opera Tommy, including "Pinball Wizard" and "Listening to You."
The show concluded with a slideshow of Entwistle.
So far, the reaction has been mostly positive.
"It was quite a blast. They played for a really long time. They're in good shape and got the crowd going on most songs," said one fan in attendance. "The only casualty last night was this tambourine that Daltrey was banging too hard during the "Kids Are Alright."
"Pretty emotional show. Pete kicked fucking ass, Roger sung his heart out--although clearly emotional--Roger knew John since they were 14. My sources tell me that during the last two days of rehersals, it hit Roger pretty hard," another fan, who claims he has seen every Who tour since 1979, wrote on the Velvetrope.com message board.
However, not everyone was won over.
"I've got to respectfully beg to differ," writes another fan on the Who message board. "This show represented the ultimate dumbing down of the Who legacy, and the crowd ate it right up. The Who represent SO much more than what was on display last night. It's sad to see it come to this."
The tour continues Wednesday at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California.