Walter Tunis: The Who brings 'Quadrophenia' in all of its glory to Louisville

Contributing Music WriterFebruary 14, 2013 

The Who in Atlanta

The Who with surviving members Roger Daltrey, above, and Pete Townshend is headed for Louisville.

ROBB COHEN — Invision/AP

  • THE WEEK THAT WAS

    Vusi Mahlasela at Berea College's Phelps-Stokes Chapel: The range, clarity and sheer emotive drama of Vusi Mahlasela's singing unfolded within the first few moments of this remarkable two-set performance. During the show-opening Ubuhle Bomhlaba, the famed South African artist and activist sang with a sustained hum, a meditative conjuring of the celebratory spirits that seemed to be by his side for the duration of the performance. But as soon as the tune's summery melody and Mahlasela's angelic singing began to act like a lullaby, the vocals recoiled into a tense, muted but quite nonthreatening growl. The lyrics were sung in Zulu, but the song's proud and powerful attitude came through loud and joyously clear.

    For the travelogue piece Say Africa, Mahlasela promoted the concept of Ubuntu, a sense of world awareness balanced by national pride. Like much of the repertoire, the song basked in sunny lyricism, the light but hearty drive of a three-man rhythm section and a groove that sent a sizeable portion of the predominantly student audience into the aisles to dance. More decisively propulsive songs like Woza, Miyela Africa and even the career-defining Mahlasela anthem When You Come Back furthered the crowd's revelry.

    Sure, it was wonderful to experience the almost combustible sense of joy within Mahlasela's vocals and the sense of cultural identity that framed it. One of the show's most moving moments, in fact, came during an introduction to Khululu Wethu when the singer described the cheers of an '80s-era crowd in South Africa that emerged when a portrait was circulated of the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, whose very image was banned under apartheid. But the show's most satisfying surprise came from the audience.

    Late into the second set, around the time Mahlasela launched into Our Sand, one could look over at the clusters of dancers and witness diversity in effortless and beautiful motion. It wasn't just blacks and whites mingling. There also were youths, elders and students of Asian, Indian and rural American heritage.

    It's doubtful the lyrical content of the songs triggered their fun. But it's a good bet Mahlasela's musical might and intent did.

The Who

7:30 p.m. Feb.16 at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville. $36.50-$124.50.Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.

There is an underlying irony to The Who's visit to Louisville on Saturday, more than 30 years after the pioneering British rock troupe last played on bluegrass soil in back-to-back shows at Freedom Hall and Rupp Arena. The irony? Those 1982 outings were part of what was being billed as The Who's farewell tour.

So here we are, three decades on, and the band — reduced after the 2002 death of bassist John Entwistle to guitarist/composer Pete Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltrey (drummer Keith Moon died in 1978) — roars on.

The punkish anarchy that made 1970's Live at Leeds a cornerstone rock 'n' roll concert recording has long since been replaced by sagelike assurance and concerts that emphasize '70s hits such as Won't Get Fooled Again, Who Are You and Baba O'Riley, songs perhaps recognized more by a younger pop generation as the TV themes for the three CSI series than as staples of a Brit rock catalogue still cherished by the elders.

Saturday's program probably will cover all three songs. But for once, they will not be the thrust of the evening. The bulk of the concert will be devoted to a complete performance of The Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. Set in England during the mid-'60s, just after the band's ascension to stardom, Quadrophenia is a story of social and class struggle that places British youth gangs, particularly the fashion-conscious Mods, in the crossfire.

As with Townshend's watershed 1969 work Tommy, though, the story line represents only a sliver of Quadrophenia's power, ingenuity and appeal.

Townshend constructed the work to have four themes, each supposedly representing a different member of The Who. That was designed to mirror the personality disorder of the opera's protagonist, Jimmy. He has a form of double schizophrenia, hence the work's title.

One of the many great charms of the original 1973 album Quadrophenia was hearing these themes weave in and out of songs. During several instrumental passages — most notably The Rock, which prefaces the epic finale of Love Reign O'er Me — the wrestling of the four themes creates a very orchestral sense of pop drama.

An altogether darker and less fanciful work than Tommy, to which it is regularly compared, Quadrophenia was never featured prominently in concert until the '90s, due largely to the fact that Townshend submerged the music in piano and synthesizers. Considering The Who, in its heyday, toured without a keyboardist, even a distant representation of the album onstage became difficult. However, a trio of keyboard players will augment the current Who lineup in Louisville to flesh out the music.

A testament to the band's (especially Daltrey's) still-affectionate attitude toward Quadrophenia was on display during December's live telecast of the 12-12-12 benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. Amid the hit parade of Who Are You and Pinball Wizard was one of Quadrophenia's great sleeper tunes, Bellboy. It featured a vintage video performance by the late Moon (who sang on the 1973 version) projected over the immediate playing of current Who drummer Zak Starkey.

Here is where the generations collide. Starkey is the son of another British drummer, Ringo Starr. In fact, Starkey began performing with Townshend and Daltrey at a 1996 performance of Quadrophenia.

It all adds up to a lot of history and some still- spectacular music. Witness it all Saturday as Louisville hears a Who.


THE WEEK THAT WAS

Vusi Mahlasela at Berea College's Phelps-Stokes Chapel: The range, clarity and sheer emotive drama of Vusi Mahlasela's singing unfolded within the first few moments of this remarkable two-set performance. During the show-opening Ubuhle Bomhlaba, the famed South African artist and activist sang with a sustained hum, a meditative conjuring of the celebratory spirits that seemed to be by his side for the duration of the performance. But as soon as the tune's summery melody and Mahlasela's angelic singing began to act like a lullaby, the vocals recoiled into a tense, muted but quite nonthreatening growl. The lyrics were sung in Zulu, but the song's proud and powerful attitude came through loud and joyously clear.

For the travelogue piece Say Africa, Mahlasela promoted the concept of Ubuntu, a sense of world awareness balanced by national pride. Like much of the repertoire, the song basked in sunny lyricism, the light but hearty drive of a three-man rhythm section and a groove that sent a sizeable portion of the predominantly student audience into the aisles to dance. More decisively propulsive songs like Woza, Miyela Africa and even the career-defining Mahlasela anthem When You Come Back furthered the crowd's revelry.

Sure, it was wonderful to experience the almost combustible sense of joy within Mahlasela's vocals and the sense of cultural identity that framed it. One of the show's most moving moments, in fact, came during an introduction to Khululu Wethu when the singer described the cheers of an '80s-era crowd in South Africa that emerged when a portrait was circulated of the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, whose very image was banned under apartheid. But the show's most satisfying surprise came from the audience.

Late into the second set, around the time Mahlasela launched into Our Sand, one could look over at the clusters of dancers and witness diversity in effortless and beautiful motion. It wasn't just blacks and whites mingling. There also were youths, elders and students of Asian, Indian and rural American heritage.

It's doubtful the lyrical content of the songs triggered their fun. But it's a good bet Mahlasela's musical might and intent did.

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