Monday, September 2, 2019

Leslie Mendelson, The Who

I've gone on the record numerous times on this blog and elsewhere, saying that I believe that The Who is the greatest band in rock and roll history. But I almost didn't go to this show. Here's the deal.

About a year ago, I started hearing rumors that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey would be reuniting in 2019 for a tour and a new album. I had mixed feelings. I love this band dearly, and I hoped that they wouldn't do anything that would damage their legacy.

Let's face it -- post the death of John Entwistle, Daltrey and Townshend's work together has been sparse. As far as recordings go, it's basically consisted of the LP Endless Wire, which I liked (but not as much as some people), and a couple of other odd songs, the best of which was probably 2004's "Real Good Looking Boy". They have done a few tours together in the last decade, but with both Keith and John gone, I guess I just didn't have the heart to see them. (I'd seen them at Giant Stadium in 1989, and again at MSG in 1996.)

Now they've fooled me before, but when I heard about the 2019 tour, I considered it as something of a "last call". Townshend is 74 years old now, and Daltrey is 75, and even though they've done probably half a dozen (or more) farewell tours over the years, one of these days, they're going to have to bow down to Father Time, just as we all will.

But even so, when tickets for the 2019 tour first went on sale in the area, I didn't jump on them. And in my heart, I think this is the reason: I was afraid they were going to embarrass themselves. A lot of the old bands from the '60s and '70s are still touring (in some form), and many of them have held up decently. Just in the last year, I've seen Yes, Procol Harum, Renaissance and Strawbs, and each of them gave creditable performances. True, they might have lost a step over the years, but they're still capable of performing an entertaining show.

This isn't always the case, though. This summer's Royal Affair Tour, featured nice performances by Yes and Asia. But John Lodge's voice has deteriorated significantly, and the mercifully short set by Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy, with Arthur Brown on lead vocals, was absolutely cringeworthy (due mostly to Brown). Gordon Lightfoot toured last summer, and I almost bought tickets, until at the last minute, I went up on YouTube to hear what he sounds like these days. I discovered that it wasn't good. The worst example of being embarrassed by time, though, was the Leslie West concert I attended about a year ago. Leslie's in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to diabetes, is severely hard of hearing, has enough vision impairment that he couldn't see his setlist, and often couldn't remember his lyrics. And he even sadly admitted that he was jealous of the guitar player from Mazarin, because West can no longer play as well as him. This was purportedly why Keith Emerson committed suicide. He was scheduled to go back out on tour, but felt that his musical ability had decayed so severely that he was going to humiliate himself.

Even Jethro Tull, probably my favorite band ever, has reached a point where I won't go and see them anymore. Ian Anderson's voice has been shot for more than twenty years, but for most of that time, he's still managed to find a way to make his shows entertaining. But by his last album, the godawful The String Quartets from 2017, his vocals had degraded to a point where he can't even hide it on a recording. I love him, but I just can't watch him anymore. (And if he comes around in a year or two, and I go back on that and buy a ticket, don't throw it back in my face you bastards! I'm conflicted, OK?)

So all of that was just a (typically) long-winded way of saying if I went to see The Who, and they embarrassed themselves, it would just hurt my heart too much.

Still, there was this little itch in my brain, saying maybe you should see them. Maybe they've got something left. And this might very well be your last chance.

Then a few months ago, I saw that Pete Pardo posted a video on YouTube on his Sea of Tranquility channel about going to see The Who. And wonder of wonders, he said it was a pretty good show. It was right at the beginning of their tour, and he said that Pete looked a little uncomfortable. But Roger was in almost peak form, and the band was supported by an orchestra, which lent some real life (and a bit of a new twist) to the songs. This was enough for me.

I started to look to see what kind of seats might be left for their Jones Beach show. But within a day or so of seeing the video, something magical happened -- The Who announced a brand new date at Madison Square Garden for Labor Day Weekend. I dived in, and bought a pair of tickets as soon as they went on sale. I wasn't sure if Denise wanted to go with me or not. But if I had to, I'd go by myself.

Now Denise isn't much of '70s bands gal. She's had no interest in Yes, or Procol Harum, or Strawbs. But there are some '70s bands she likes. She likes Renaissance (probably even a little more than I do), and she's come with me to see Jethro Tull and/or Ian Anderson several times. And she also actually likes The Who. We even saw them together at MSG in 1996, when they performed the two rock operas back to back (and threw in a handful of their other hits, as well.) So being as it was a Sunday night show, and she was off for Labor Day on Monday, she said yes.

I was psyched as the date got closer. I wrote about seeing Santana last weekend, and that was fun. But by far, my favorite Woodstock moment, as we celebrated the festival's 50th anniversary this summer, was Pete Townshend dropkicking Abbie Hoffman's drug addled ass right off the stage when he ran out and tried to commandeer a mic during their set. Peace, love and music my pretzel nuggets! We're the f'ing Who, mate! (If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm an angry guy. And The Who has always made great music for angry guys!)

Then, as if I needed any extra enhancement for this show, two days ago I got a nice surprise. Madison Square Garden sent out a preparatory email for the show, listing The Who "with special guest Leslie Mendelson". Excellent!

For those of you who aren't familiar, Leslie Mendelson is a local Long Island gal who has put together what seems to be a pretty happening little career in music. When Denise's band was still active in the late '90s or so, Leslie was the lead singer of a very popular local jam/funk band called Mother Freedom. I don't think I actually met her at the time (or ever, actually), and I never saw the band (unless I caught them in the Long Island Music Festival one year, which is possible. Those semi-final round shows used to string eight or more bands together in a night, and I saw a bunch of them. So as you might imagine, these days, they've become a bit of a blur in my brain.)

Then, after MF broke up, Leslie started her solo career. She released her first solo album, Take It As You Will, in the early 2000s. I liked it, and I used to play it on my radio show on WUSB.

I didn't hear of her for many years after that (and I erroneously thought she had moved to Los Angeles). But in 2017, she released a new LP called Love and Murder. And there was one track on it in particular, called "Jericho", that I absolutely fell in love with. It's a quiet song, and it might not jump out at you at first listen. But it's got an elegance about it, and I find it exquisitely beautiful, enough so that it made #4 on my Top 20 Songs of 2017 list.

So here it was, a local Long Island (now Brooklyn, but that's still geographically part of Long Island) gal, opening for The freaking Who! I was super excited for her, and full of Long Island pride. Then I looked it back, and discovered that she'd also opened for The Who when they played MSG this last May. And she also put a single out last year in collaboration with Jackson Browne. So Ms. Mendelson has some things happening in her life.

As I like to do when I have a concert that night (especially when it involves going into the city), I took a fairly light day yesterday. At about 4PM, Denise gave our son $20 to order a pizza. (And I reluctantly left him my car keys, with visions of him cruising all over Suffolk County in my head. I don't think he actually does this, but in my imagination, he's a total party animal the second we walk out the door.) Then we jumped into her car, and headed over to the Ronkonkoma LIRR station.

We timed it perfectly, and caught the 4:39 train into Penn Station. I won't say that the whole train was rowdy, but there were definitely some Who fans on board who had already started fueling up, if you know what I mean, for the concert. (We saw these same guys at midnight waiting for the train to go home. It was a pretty amusing "before and after" picture.)

We pulled into Penn Station a little after 6PM. Showtime was 7:30, and the doors were supposed to open at 6:30. Unfortunately, the last couple of times I attended a show at Madison Square Garden, they didn't actually open the doors until 15 or 20 minutes after they said they would. This is a problem for me, because I just can't stand in a line that long. I'd do better if I had my cane with me, but I've had problems with some venues not wanting to allow a cane into a concert. (I suppose if it was one of those metal things you get at a medical supply store, they'd have to. But I use a wooden walking stick as a cane when I need one, and it's touch and go as to whether the powers-that-be at any given venue is going to give me a hard time about it or not.)

So we decided to grab some food instead of getting right onto the line. Neither of us had brought a bag with us -- we were traveling light -- so I knew we'd be able to go through the shorter "bag-free" metal detectors lines outside.

We went up to the mid-level of Penn Station, and found a Friday's restaurant. I think it inhabits the same space as a former Penn Station restaurant we kind of got held hostage at a couple of decades earlier when we went into the city to see Phantom of the Opera. (As we were eating dinner that night, a number of police officers entered and wouldn't let anyone leave the restaurant. They said there was a standoff with a person who had a gun over by the Amtrak window. After about a half hour, they led us all out, and had us exit the area towards 7th Avenue, walking single file along the wall. It turned out that the perpetrator was actually just an 18-year-old girl who was threatening to shoot herself. They got the gun away from her, and got her some help. But we didn't learn any of that until afterwards, so it was a little harrowing. You've got to love New York. Phantom was great, btw.)

Again, there were a few somewhat loud people at the bar at Friday's who were nice and liquored up for the show. I wandered if this was going to be an issue later, but the crowd actually turned out to be no more rambunctious than at your typical rock concert.

We left the restaurant a little after 7, and for once, breezed into the Garden. We took the escalator up (and up, and up), and got off at the top level. We then used the facilities, bought a couple of $6 (you thieving bastards!) bottles of water, and headed for our seats.

Now by this time, I didn't actually remember where the seats I had bought were, except that they were on the aisle, and they were in the upper level. We didn't have the extra seat tonight, because these tickets were fairly expensive. I was hoping that the people on Denise's other side wouldn't be big people like us, and that we'd fit in the seats OK. But I figured if there was an issue, I'd head over to the customer service booth and try to get transferred to the handicapped section, the way we had done for Fleetwood Mac.

Well, it turned out we were pretty high up. Very high up. In fact, we were only five or six rows from the top of the arena. We hiked up the stairs slowly. I wasn't too bad (at this point), but Denise's knees were bothering her, and the climb wasn't doing her any good. Then, when we got to the seats, I learned I'd made a key error. I'd bought two seats that were in a row by themselves. But unfortunately, there was a solid wall right up against the inside seat. And the damned seats were tiny, very tight, and with very little leg room. Denise sat down on the inside, and when I sat, she had almost no room. As for me, I had to hang my legs in the aisle to give her any leg room at all.

I was tired from the climb, but I wasn't sure if we could watch the entire concert this way. So after trying to cool off for a minute or so, I asked Denise if she wanted me to go to customer service. She was noncommittal about it (she's not a trouble maker like me). But after another moment or so, I decided I'd better try.

I hiked back down the stairs, and told her if I was successful, I'd come back and wave her down. (I had no intention of climbing those stairs again.)

I asked the usher, who was an older, brusque individual, and learned that the customer service was by Gate 27. (We were at Gate 8. Of course.) So I made my way over there, as quickly as I could, as it was close to showtime.

It didn't go so well. There was a large group in front of me, and by the time it was my turn, I learned that they had just given out the last handicapped seat. ("You didn't buy a limited access ticket," the fellow in charge gently upbraided me. Dude, the website makes it almost impossible to figure out how to do that, or I would do it every time. I really don't enjoy having to try to make these last second trades, nor do I enjoy the uncertainty of traveling to a concert never sure if I'm going to be able to use the seats I paid for or not.)

He left it off by telling me that he'd come over and get me after The Who went on if anything had opened up. He then had the girl at the desk take my last name and section number. But they had no interest in taking my row or seat numbers, so it was pretty obvious I was never going to see him again. And I never did.

It's kind of a Catch-22. If you want to get into the arena in time to avail yourself of help from customer service before they run out of seats, you have to be willing (and able) to stand on that long line waiting for them to decide to let you in. For less expensive concerts, like Bastille or Three Days Grace/Disturbed, you can deal with the issue by buying an extra seat. But some shows are too expensive to do that.

In any event, I ambled back over to my section, by this time very tired and sweaty, and dreading the climb back up to my seats. To improve my mood, the usher gave me an attitude about reentering my section. I think I would have cursed him out or gotten into an argument with him, but by this time, I was too exhausted.

(Denise and I have already tickets to see Bastille in the smaller MSG arena later this month. This time, we do have the extra seat. I think that might be the last time I go to the Garden. They're overpriced, and not very friendly.)

I got back up to the seat right before the lights went out and Leslie Mendelson went on. She played as part of a duo with a guitarist, Steve McEwen.

The first two songs of her short, 7-song set were quiet numbers, "Hardest Part" and the gentle, pretty "Jericho." The guy in the row behind me complained grumpily to his wife that Leslie was "boring," as the woman tried to shush him. I hate grumpy guys. (Heh.) I wondered if this ADHD buffoon understood that it made sense to have an acoustic duo as the opening act, as they had to have someone who could easily set up in front of the equipment for a band and a 40-something-piece orchestra. At least the promoters didn't do what I've been complaining about recently, which was to have some guy up there singing along to canned prerecorded music. I understand that the Garden is a little cavernous for an act like this, but at least we were getting honest-to-God live music.

In any event, the rest of Mendelson's set was a little less intimate and more upbeat (and included her playing piano on a couple of numbers), which placated the curmudgeon. (I don't mean me, I was with her all along. I mean the other curmudgeon.) She seemed to go over pretty well with the audience in general, too. It didn't hurt matters any when she explained to the crowd that she was a Long Islander. Grumpy old Mr. Wilson behind me liked that she did a brief Dr. John medley, "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time/Such a Night." He also seemed suitably impressed when she performed the Jackson Browne collaboration, "A Human Touch". So in spite of his early complaints, by the end of her set, she'd even won him over. Her full setlist can be found at www.yougohometowngirl!.com.

After that, there was an excitement in the air as we waited for The Who. Now one thing I should tell you beforehand. The first leg of this current tour, the "Moving On!" tour, began in early May of this year, and ran through July 6 at Wembley Stadium in London. The guys then took the summer off, and this was to be their first show back after that. So I was aware going in that on the one hand, they'd be well rested, but on the other, they'd probably be rusty.

The Who took the stage at somewhere around 8:30, to tumultuous applause. Besides Pete and Roger, the band consisted of Pete's brother Simon on rhythm guitar, Loren Gold (he's a guy!) on keyboards, Jon Button on bass, Zak Starkey on drums, and Billy Nicholls on backing vocals. The first violinist of their orchestra, a mischievous-looking young Asian woman named Katie Jacoby, is also listed as part of the regular band. (I saw some info on her somewhere, and she's a hoot. From what I understand, she's been a huge Who fan since she was a teenager, and convinced her high school band to learn a couple of Who covers for their halftime shows, or something like that. She had this huge grin on her face all night, and is obviously overjoyed at getting to take the stage every night and play with her idols.)

Delirium ensued, as Pete, Roger and the boys (and girls) played the first couple of chords of the "Overture" from Tommy. What followed was a 6-song Tommy sampler that concluded with "We're Not Gonna Take It."

The band then started to play some of their other hits from over the years, starting with "Who Are You."

Now I'll be honest. You could hear that things got a bit muddy at times. Pete apologized several times throughout the evening, saying he wished the band was in their top form for the night, which they seemingly had been at the Garden show in May. (He seemed especially bummed by that because the crowd was so supportive -- as he put it, "I can feel the love.") And to add to the negatives, Pete blew his voice out fairly early. He sounded pretty good on the Tommy stuff, but by the eighth song of the night, he had to suck on a throat lozenge (or something) just to battle his way through "Eminence Front." (He also had a rough night physically, as some time later in the evening, he tore a fingernail off doing one of his patented guitar "windmills".)

Nevertheless, it was a pretty great night. Usually, when Denise and I go out to a show together, we're watching a couple of '80s bands where she knows the words to almost every song, and I'm the one who doesn't recognize the deep cuts. For this show, while she'd heard most of the songs before (except for two new ones coming out on the album being released in November), I was the one singing along on every song. Hell, when I was a teenager, I used to sing two performances a night of Tommy (along with the album) while exercising in my living room, and squeeze in a production of Jesus Christ, Superstar in between them. (Yeah, I was a lonely kid.)

After the tenth song (one of the new ones called "Hero Ground Zero"), the orchestra was dismissed for awhile, and The Who played the next several songs with just the rock band. This was actually one of the best parts of the night. They blasted through "Substitute", "The Seeker" (which they hadn't been playing in the last leg of the tour, at least not for the last few shows), and one of my favorites, "You Better You Bet". They then did an acoustic version of "Won't Get Fooled Again" (with just Pete and Roger), followed by a chilling version of "Behind Blue Eyes" where Jacoby and a cellist joined them.

At this point, the full orchestra came back for another new song, which Pete announced as "Big Cigars". (This has led to an all-out war on, where a group of pinheads insist on changing the name of the song to "Guantanamo", which is a song from a Pete Townshend solo album. But since Pete announced the effing thing as "Big Cigars", I'm going to assume that he knows the name of his song better than they do.)

And following that, the band launched into a 7-song sampling from Quadrophenia. (This included a keyboard solo transition between "The Rock" and "Love, Reign O'er Me" where Gold snuck in a snippet of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind".) By this time, even Roger's voice was a little ragged in his lower register, although he could still belt out a scream with the best of them. (I think he may have been straining himself a little to help compensate for Pete's vocal problems.)

There was one big moment left, as The Who and company ended the show with a roaring production of "Baba O'Riley" that found the crowd happily singing along. (And I've got to tell you, Katie Jacoby was just going wild on the violin part of this song, and loving every minute of it!)

As they took their bows, Roger joked that age had taken their charm and their good lucks, but nothing could impact the greatness of Pete Townshend's songs. Very true.

So has The Who lost a step? Maybe. But to me, they started out on so much of a higher level than 99% of the bands out there that they could afford to lose a step or two. If you get a chance to see them between now and the end of their tour, should you? Absolutely. I suspect that a lot of the issues they had tonight were mostly about rust from having taken the summer off, and that they'll be back in full fighting shape by the end of this week.

For my Long Island readers, The Who have one more show in the area at the Jones Beach Theater on September 15. It's probably sold out by now, but if you can find a way to wrangle a ticket somehow, I suggest you do it. They've still got plenty left in the tank. And who knows if this is their last time through these parts or not.

Anyway, I'd say my highlights of the night included "Substitute", "Behind Blue Eyes", "You Better You Bet" and "The Punk and the Godfather". (And it was also pretty sweet to get to hear Leslie Mendelson play "Jericho" live.) Denise was a little disappointed that they didn't play "My Generation", but she realized the band could have easily put together an entirely different 24-song setlist that still would have been great. The Who's setlist for the night can be found on www.Hey!Pinhead!