The Who at the Super Bowl: Playing their younger selves
It was an old-fashioned laser light show at Miami's Sun Life Stadium during the Super Bowl halftime show, as vintage rockers the Who energetically went largely without gimmicks and shtick during its brief mini concert. Relying on little more than the sturdiness of its riffs and Roger Daltrey's still arena-piercing yell, the Who tried to pump some life back into its classic rock hits, many of which have since been reclaimed as the soundtrack to a CBS crime show.
If not a wholly obvious choice -- the Who have not been on the promotional circuit in a couple years -- the Who were a relatively safe one. Chosen, perhaps, by default, as one of the few (only?) giant boomer bands to have not yet received the Super Bowl stamp of approval, the Who weren't heading into the halftime show for Super Bowl XLIV as a band of surprises. Having released only one album of new material in more than 25 years, few have perfected the art of the greatest hits set like the Who.
Such predictability has been a staple of the halftime show since the infamous Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake performance of 2004. With the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney snaring post-nipplegate slots, Pete Townshend had a right to be wondering when the group he stills calls the Who would get the promotional benefit the Sunday stage provides. As he swung his trademark windmills on "Baba O'Riley," he certainly looked the part, playing the role of a man 30 years younger.
Yet the Who was certainly a more fitting booking than some recent choices. Last year, the NFL tapped Bruce Springsteen -- the populist, not the working-class hero -- and two years ago, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers presented an efficient, workmanlike halftime show.
Both were acts with a reputation for shying away from such grandiose corporate celebrations, and as CD sales decline, hardcore fans have become accustomed to writing off such shilling as a necessary evil of selling a new album or hyping a tour. Yet the Who, with its countless greatest hits tours, an inability to be slowed by the loss of two its founding members and an openness to licensing, would seem to be right at home at squeezing in a 12-minute set amid the Super Bowl's advertisements and sponsorships.
A little more than three years removed from the release of "Endless Wire," a politically infused set of new material that seemed to signal that Townshend and Daltrey were not content to let the Who remain a nostalgia act forever, the Who went largely unadorned in Miami, as much as performances mid-football game can, at least. In a striped jacket, Daltrey looked the part of a rock 'n' roll referee, and Townshend, sporting a flat-topped hat and sunglasses, affirmed that he hasn't wholly embraced the idea of buttons in his old age.
Aided by Ringo's son Zak Starkey on drums, the Who wasted no time in getting to the chorus in "Pinball Wizard," emphasizing the riff with some celebratory explosions. Ultimately, it felt less a concert than a stripped-down Olympics opening ceremony, with the band on a circular high-tech stage -- a set piece that sort of resembled a giant, modern Simon, to use a reference point dating to a period when the Who's prowess was just starting to wane.
While younger bands such as Green Day have stolen some of the Who's knack for theatricality, Townshend and Daltrey relied more on gusto at halftime. The two couldn't quite sync the harmonies in "Who Are You," but no matter, they were hurdling through their short set as if they were on a treadmill.
Townshend tossed aside his acoustic for an electric, and he hopped and skipped behind his vocalist, who huffed out a harmonica solo to close "Baba O'Riley." A brief breather arrived for a few snippets of "See Me, Feel Me," but then it was straight into a pyro-enhanced "Won't Get Fooled Again," which Daltrey ended with an exclamation point -- a blood-curdling shriek.
After the game, the Who's brief set will be available for purchase on the video game Rock Band, allowing you to play the part of arena rock star. The Who, after all, shouldn't have all the fun pretending.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Associated Press