The Who is responsible for one of the most spontaneous moments in Bay Area rock concert history.
After Keith Moon passed out on his drum set during a 1973 Cow Palace show, the band recruited 19-year-old Scot Halpin from the audience. Even though he had n0t played drums for at least one year, the instant legend jammed with the rest of the band on its final few songs.
The Who’s show at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Thursday night was pretty much the opposite of that. Surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend provided exactly what everyone expected, plunge to the barely fluctuating tour setlist, playing for a respectable two hours and practicing the kind of responsible caution that is pretty much a requirement for rock stars who make it to their 50th year in a band.
The Who already postponed this Oakland tour stop once, when Daltrey was sidelined late last year with viral meningitis. From the moment they started playing on Thursday, no one was taking any chances. While Bruce Springsteen ran laps through the crowd last time he came here, Daltrey and Townshend seemed to be keeping a safe distance from the edge of the stage, as if the audience was made of lava.
That does not mean the band could not deliver a good time for the full arena, and sometime show a little anger. Daltrey and Townshend were in a “Behind the Music” mood, telling four stories to the audience by the end of their first four songs. Townshend announced it was his birthday — he turned 71 on Thursday — and talked about the band’s June 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
The only disarray at Oracle Arena was on the distractingly literal video screen behind the band, which showed a giant blue eye for “Behind Blue Eyes,” and a sparsely clouded vista for “I Can See For Miles.” At other times, the screen showed footage and photos from earlier in the band’s career, and artistic tributes to deceased band members Moon (who died in 1978) and bassistJohn Entwistle (2002).
The old rage surfaced briefly during “Baba O’Riley” and “Love, Reign o’er Me,” two songs that are difficult to perform without getting extra fired up. Townshend was at his most electric during a pair of instrumentals, especially “Sparks” from the album “Tommy.” The band’s encore-less set ended with “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
If this indeed is the final tour (the band has been saying that since the first time Jerry Brown was governor), then no one in the audience can complain they didn’t get to hear the hits. The 21 songs seemed to be chosen by focus group, including “Eminence Front” and “You Better You Bet” representing the lackluster 1980s. “The Magic Bus” and “Substitute” were the only glaring omissions.
The best mantra for this concert was from “Baba O’Riley”: “Let’s get together, before we get much older.” It’s a nice sentiment for a band that remains enjoyable, and deserves as many goodbyes and victory laps as it can muster.