The Who
The Who performing at the TQL Stadium in Cincinnati May 15, 2022. (T.C. Brewster, courtesy FC Cincinnati)

The Who brought a heartfelt performance to their first Cincinnati show in over 40 years

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As hard as it might be to believe, The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey weren’t always the genre-defining rock ‘n’ roll icons who took to the stage Sunday night at Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium.

In fact, there was a time not so long past in our collective rearview mirror when almost no one, (outside perhaps the exceptionally hip) had a clue how largely “rock ‘n’ roll” would figure into the fabric of our history. Perhaps even fewer could have imagined how much of an enduring impact a band of young Englishmen with a fondness for high octane stage antics and amateur pyrotechnics would have on the face of a culture that was just beginning to take shape.

The Who
Pete Townshend of The Who. (Photo by T.C. Brewster, courtesy FC Cincinnati)

Sunday’s show marked the first time The Who has performed in Cincinnati since their December 3, 1979 show at the Riverfront Coliseum (now the Heritage Bank Center) where 11 young concertgoers were tragically killed when thousands of fans rushed the limited opened entrances to the venue.

the who

The tragedy was acknowledged and the victims were honored throughout the night, beginning with an opening performance from Safe Passage, a local rock group with members who attended the 1979 show, and were friends and classmates of some of the victims. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that nine of the families of the tragedy’s victims were in the audience for the show. Before The Who came on, a video of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder rolled over the arena’s massive screens – detailing how Townshend had done his best to help Vedder in the emotional aftermath of a similar tragedy that took the lives of nine concertgoers during Pearl Jam’s 2000 performance at the Roskilde Festival in Belgium.

When The Who started their set, Townshend immediately recognized the poignancy and importance of the band’s return to Cincinnati after more than four decades: “I’ve been trying to think of what to say, what would be cool to say, what would be uncool to say, and really there’s no words that we can say that mean as much the fact that you guys have come out tonight and supported this event. Thank you so much.”

Pete Townshend of The Who. (T.C. Brewster, courtesy FC Cincinnati)

Early in the show, Townshend joked the band “wasn’t getting paid” for the performance– a reference to the fact proceeds from the concert benefitted the P.E.M. Memorial, which serves as the funding for a scholarship for Finneytown High School seniors seeking an education in the arts. The P.E.M. Memorial is named in honor of three victims of the 1979 tragedy who attended the high school: Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle, and Karen Morrison.

The band then started in on a sort of condensed experience of their 1969 album “Tommy,” opening with “Overture,” followed by “1921,” “Amazing Journey,” and “Sparks,” before skipping ahead to side three, track three of the album and busting into “Pinball Wizard.”

The incorporation of regional orchestral musicians into the band’s set enriched it – highlighting some of the most satisfying sections of even the most familiar tracks, such as “Who Are You.” A stripped-down mid-show set showcased the core band. This section included renditions of beloved tracks like “Behind Blue Eyes” (helping those of my generation to further remember that Fred Durst was not the first person to record the track) and “You Better You Bet.”

The orchestra returned to close out the show, notably hitting an emotional high note with a heartfelt dedication to the 11 victims of the 1979 tragedy during “Love Reign O’er Me.” The show culminated with the invitation to members of the Finneytown High School to join The Who onstage for their legendary anthem (and powerful set closer) “Baba O’Reilly.”

So ended The Who’s poignant and ultimately hopeful return to Cincinnati on a balmy night in early May.

However, I don’t feel like we are quite done contextualizing all of this. Maybe it’s the turning of the seasons that makes time seem so malleable – but let’s take a moment to turn back the clock 55 years, on the dot. I think it’ll be worth our time.

In May 1967, not a single member of The Who was even 25 years old. Although they already had iconic bangers “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation” under their belt (meaning they’d already accomplished more than what most of us will in a lifetime), they hadn’t even made their U.S. debut!

That would come soon – in only a matter of weeks – at the Monterey Pop Festival, which at the time was just a music festival with an impressive lineup and not a heralded, heavily studied cultural landmark.

After Monterey Pop, The Who supported Herman’s Hermits on a coast-to-coast U.S. tour. While that may sound odd from our vantage point in 2022 – in 1967 The Who weren’t the nearly mythical band any lover of popular music will profess them to be, and Herman’s Hermits weren’t the semi-novelty act so many of those same lovers of popular music have wrongly pigeonholed them as.

In reality, The Who could stylistically relate to Herman’s Hermits’ deceptively straight-ahead approach to pop music, not to mention both band’s serious love for off-stage tomfoolery. (Shameless plug: check out WOUB’s interview with Peter Noone from late last year, at this link!)

Now, I know it’s impossible for me to know precisely what Townshend and Daltrey were like when they were younger than I am now and yet still more artistically promising than I will ever be.

Still, something makes me certain that if we could somehow plant the 21-year-old and 22-year-old pre-legendary rock star versions of these icons in the audience of last night’s show, even they’d be enormously impressed with the performance their older, more lauded selves gave.