Roger Daltrey ambled onstage wagging a fist full of lyric sheets in the air.
"Look at this lot," the Who's lead singer said Monday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. "It should've been bloody Shakespeare. Lyrics. Why couldn't we write simple songs, easy ones?"
With a set like the one he played Monday, he probably wasn't the only one who needed those sheets. Kicking off his first solo tour in three years, the 73-year-old singer dug deep into his and the Who's catalog, dusting off several rarities for the first time in years, maybe ever.
"The idea of tonight's show is, we'll have a bit of the familiar and, if you don't know what it is, a bit of the unfamiliar," he said. "If I forget the lyrics, it'll be extremely unfamiliar.
At certain points, yeah, it felt like it. This was an extremely loose and occasionally slippery night, with a few opening-night hiccups and snafus that Daltrey laughed right off. But it was also a night that felt fresher and more unpredictable than the Who mega-tours of recent years, stuffed with all the hits that made them British Invasion icons.
With his Who co-founder and chief songwriter Pete Townshend on a yearlong sabbatical, Daltrey was backed by as much of the Who's touring lineup as he could get – lead guitarist and music director Frank Simes, rhythm guitarist (and Pete's brother) Simon Townshend, relatively new bassist Jon Button and occasional drummer Scott Devours. If you could get past the absence of Pete Townshend – admittedly a pretty big hurdle – this was essentially the Who, circa 2017.
After rehearsing in Clearwater for the past few days, Daltrey said it was nice to reboot the Who in a venue like Ruth Eckerd, as opposed to the crowds of up to 200,000 they just got through playing to in South America: "It's sort of like we're back in my front room. How bad can it get?"
He also offered a sincere back-slap to Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center, a partner in his Teen Cancer America charity: "I'm so proud of you guys in this area – you have three hospitals working together, and that's unheard of in the U.S."
Things started simple enough, with an instrumental overture to Tommy followed by Pinball Wizard ("Shortest Tommy ever!" he cracked), then the harmonious hits I Can See For Miles and subdued Behind Blue Eyes, all warbled out in his clenched, froggy rasp.
But things started going off-book by song five, Another Tricky Day, which Daltrey dedicated to Donald Trump: "I make no promises above him 'cause I'm English. Nothing to do with me, but I'm sure he'll relate to this song."
Then came an all-time Who rarity, Athena, a jittery bit of funky power pop and blue-eyed soul from 1982's It's Hard – a song Daltrey said no one on stage had ever played before an audience. Then, a few songs later, another live debut: 1975's How Many Friends, a midtempo tune that served as a regal canvas for Daltrey's twisty vocal. He even threw in a relatively new newbie, 2006's back-alley rocker It's Not Enough.
With so much new material to learn, no wonder some songs worked better than others. The difficult harmonies on Daltrey's 1973 solo single Giving It All Away got a little dodgy. And Getting In Tune stopped and started as Daltrey dealt with earpiece issues, something Simon Townshend also battled.
"I've got to tell you, after 55 years on the road, there's not much left of the ears," Daltrey said. "Without our hearing piece, we can't hear anything."
But the songs that popped totally popped – and not just Who songs, either. Sure, Who Are You and the strobe-lit Baba O'Riley turned the stands into a stadium. But the elastic, Britpoppy Going Mobile – with Simon Townshend on lead vocals – was an electrified guitar clash between him and Simes, as was the rebellious Young Man's Blues.
Calls for hits like Slip Kid and My Generation went unacknowledged and unheeded, but for Who lifers, that was probably okay – the chance to hear Daltrey sing so many deeper cuts in an intimate setting was probably worth it. As was hearing the show end with an all-new Daltrey song ("I'm still kind of toying with the lyrics"). It was a nice one, too, a plaintive number accompanied only by piano and stand-up bass.
"It's a bit of a challenge at the end of a show for a vocal," he said. "But, fearless, aren't I? Fearless!"
Sure was, rough edges and all. It wasn't Shakespeare; it wasn't even the Who. But Daltrey sang the hell out of it. And he didn't need a lyric sheet to do so.
— Jay Cridlin