LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — Meet the new band, the same as the old band.
Or maybe not. Four days after the death of bass player John Entwistle, the two surviving members of British rock band The Who kicked off their previously planned North American tour in front of 18,000 fans at the historic Hollywood Bowl on Monday.
While some people debated the propriety of playing so soon after the death, a surprisingly lighthearted Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend got down to business, grinding out two hours of classic material from three decades’ worth of albums.
“Tonight, we play for John Entwistle,” said vocalist Daltrey, three songs into the set. “He’s the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, and he lives on in all the music we play.”
Standing in for Entwistle was Welsh session musician Pino Palladino, who had undergone two intensive days’ of rehearsals after the band announced on Friday that its three-month tour would go on as a “tribute … to an irreplaceable friend.”
Just the day before, Entwistle’s body had been found in a Las Vegas hotel, where the tour was set to begin. Entwistle, 57, suffered an apparent heart attack, although autopsy results have not been published pending toxicology tests.
The decision to tour provoked disbelief in some quarters.
“It’s business–and I underline the word ‘business’–as usual,” a disgusted Jim Ladd, a veteran Los Angeles radio personality, said on his broadcast Monday night.
Guitarist Townshend intimated as much on his Website last Saturday when he wrote, “I simply believe we have a duty to go on, to ourselves, ticket buyers, staff, promoters, big and little people.”
The concert began on a poignant note as Daltrey and guitarist Townshend sauntered onto the stage and hugged each other. Both were dressed in black, as was a stationary Palladino who blended into the speaker stack behind him.
The Who launched into three early hits, “I Can’t Explain,” “Substitute” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” Townshend, in black sunglasses, furiously attacked his red Fender guitar.
The ensemble was rounded out by drummer Zak Starkey, keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, and Townshend’s youngest brother, Simon, on acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Original drummer Keith Moon died of an accidental overdose of sedatives in 1978.
Townshend lightened the mood a few songs later when he compared the Bowl’s white shell-like stage to a “white vagina,” while the giant spheres suspended from the ceiling looked like a “testicle factory.”
While noting the absence of Entwistle’s “huge harmonic noise,” he congratulated Palladino on playing well anyway.
“For fans that have followed us for many years, this is gonna be very difficult,” Townshend said. “We understand. We’re not pretending that nothing’s happened.”
But he said Los Angeles was a great place to kick off the tour, joking that it was “full of emptiness, deep rivers of shallow nothingness.
“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.”
Other songs on the set list included “Who Are You,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Eminence Front,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Love, Reign O’er Me,” “The Kids Are Alright,” the 1981 rarity “Another Tricky Day” and their 1965 anthem “My Generation.”
After the encore, a suite of tunes from the 1969 Tommy rock opera, Townshend and Daltrey clutched bouquets of flowers and saluted photos of Entwistle on the giant video screens that flanked the stage. A male fan ran up and hugged a compliant Townshend.
“Live every moment of your lives,” Daltrey told the crowd before Townshend dragged him off, all the guitars intact.