Discover more from caryn rose's jukeboxgraduate dot com
On Saint Peter Street: Pete Townshend at Preservation Hall
just a little is enough.
MR. PETER TOWNSHEND
Pete Townshend’s father, Clifford, was a famous 1940’s era saxophonist in a big band called the Squadronaires. Roger Daltrey had a job as a metalworker in the early days of the High Numbers, later the Who. John Entwistle (Entwistle WITHOUT an H, Townshend WITH) died in Las Vegas in 2002 on the eve of a Who tour, and it was not a quiet end nor a distinguished one. I never got to see Keith Moon play with the band, he also died of “misadventure,” as the British coroners like/d to say, in the late 70s, and had to make do with Kenney Jones. Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son who toddled around Keith’s house as a baby (their fathers were legitimately good friends) is now on drums, but even he is no longer bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, having stepped in to fill the shoes of someone whose drum shoes were impossible to fill, and having held his own, now looks like he’s a member of Liam Gallager’s entourage, blonde shaggy hair and tracksuit. These are the kind of completely normal data points that my brain began spitting out, unsolicited, as I crept as close to the front of the press pen at the Festival Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Sponsored by Shell for the Who’s headlining Saturday night set.
There’s Billy Nichols on backing vocals. Why is there a horn section if your keyboard player is just going to double the horn lines and be louder in the mix. Don’t show Simon Townshend on the big screen when his brother is playing a guitar solo, no one is here to see that.
I planned on seeing the Who at Jazz Fest in 2020, and then again in 2021, and when they once again got added to the bill in 2022 I was coming down for at least one weekend; I probably would have just come down anyway no matter who (hah) was on the bill, because I have good friends who live here and I can sleep on an air mattress in their front room and fly in on the edges of the Fest when airfare is more affordable. It also does not hurt that my friend Alison Fensterstock was a music writer for the Times-Picayune and covered the Fest in real time for many years (and has covered New Orleans music in various shapes and forms for longer than that). I basically walk around all weekend following her, which one does when one has access to an actual expert in New Orleans music. But it was my turn to find us a spot for the Who, and got us to the second row of people in our section before she opted to drop back to the edges. I told her I would get my dose and then come back; I can go see the Who by myself at any time, but it is not often I get to see them with my girlfriends, and in these Trying Times I value the opportunities to bond with other women over live rock and roll more than ever. We all had to fight for our place and prove we knew enough to wear that t-shirt and still have to deal with dumb old white men who want to pat us on the head for ‘getting it right’. Fuck off my fucking stage, as Townshend would say.
There used to be a sign on the back wall of the show room at Preservation Hall, listing the prices for requests. Traditional requests were the cheapest, other songs were the next price level, and “The Saints” was the top price; the last time I was here it was $25. It’s an inside joke but it’s also very much that tourists would ask to hear “When The Saints Go Marching In” every show otherwise. That sign was conspicuously absent when we got to the Hall around 11pm Saturday night. I eased my way into the showroom and claimed a spot one person behind the fancy folks who have paid big money to have a seat on a wooden bench. It gets very hot in that room, it was very close, after two days of walking the fairgrounds I am tired and it is late. But I told myself I would have to pass out before I’d leave my spot. (Alison stood in the carriageway at the entrance to the building, a spot she has staked out from her years of experience.)
Midnight Preserves is the Hall’s post-Fest shows that take advantage of big-name musicians being in town for the Fest and wanting the chance to play Pres Hall, with the ability to charge top prices for tickets without knowing who is going to play and raise money for the Hall. They use that money to do the work as advertised in their name: preserving New Orleans music and history and musicians. These shows have a specific formula, which is also part of the mission and the tradition: Midnight Preserves always open with the Preservation Hall band playing traditional jazz, the kind of thing you come to New Orleans to see if you care about music.
Come with me to the city
Back to New Orleans
I'll be hanging in the Quarter
On Saint Peter Street
The band played “Saint Peter Street” and Louis Armstrong’s “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” among others I don’t remember now and wasn’t taking notes on because it was too fucking hot. You sing at Pres Hall, you do call and response, you applaud the solos, you give the drummer some; it is a music and a form that responds to the presence of and the energy from an audience, it is one of the places rock and roll borrowed that element from. Jason Isbell, who did Preserves the night before, slips into a seat on the very edge of the stage next to the drummer to watch. Gary Clark Jr. comes out to play with the band on a traditional blues number, and I am struck by the ease of his virtuosity on the guitar. He is done and then Pete is introduced and, you know, there is Pete Townshend standing mere feet away. He has prepared remarks in the form of sheets of white paper on his music stand, some are lyrics, some are reminders for himself as he goes into more detail about his knowledge and understanding and genuine love for the kind of trad jazz that’s played in New Orleans, talking about his father’s band and being on the road with them, and how he discovered his favorite influence, a guitar player named Snooks Eaglin that Pete has mentioned in the past, how he fashioned the melodic style that is now something we all recognize as Townshendian -- Snooks Eaglin is how Pete got himself there.
He is missing a page of notes or lyrics, he informs us; he also informs us that he hasn’t sung this song in a while and “this should be interesting” said with the kind of equally Townshendian self-deprecation complete with miniscule eye roll at himself that those of us who (lol again) have followed this man closely for decades recognize. He’s not defensive, he’s just a little nervous (even though he later tells us that he is never nervous when he performs); it was more that he absolutely knew where he was and what it meant and why it was important, and he felt it, because of his exposure to it through his father, and the thing that Pete does (and Roger Daltrey also does by extension because he’s singing Pete’s words) is that he can make you feel when he’s dropping his defenses and being open to the vulnerability of the moment, and standing there in Preservation Hall he did that for us. It was visceral, standing there listening to him hit those arpeggios on his Hummingbird, watching him play the intro to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with both the current vibe as well as the fortitude the song mandates. I don’t know how I’d get through repeated performances of a song that would end up being so painfully prescient, written when so much in the world was shifting and changing to what we thought would be for good, only for “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” to be frustratingly relevant decades later. I’m trying to detect whether I’m seeing any of this from Pete as I am not often this close when this song is being performed, and maybe there was a soupcon of “I cannot believe I wrote this and it’s still relevant, what the actual fuck.” Maybe there wasn’t. Maybe I just want there to be.
The crowd was generous and attentive and not full of the kind of rich bougie assholes who show up at the Hall because their hotel concierge arranged it, and we didn’t realize we were all mostly on the same side until he started singing WGFA and we realized we were all singing softly with him. “What are we singing next, Pete,” a woman asked affectionately when we were done, and I liked that feeling of camaraderie which is the thing I worry most has been stripped from live music at the end of two years of seeing how selfish our fellow humans really are.
The next song, he told us, God told him to write, and I bit my tongue before I said something about Meher Baba (Pete’s guru in the 70s and he might still be?) and there was just the tiniest joyful collective gasp when people realized what it was. I love this song solo acoustic when he’s feeling it, because he puts a different inflection on the vocal delivery, and the guitar work is more jazzy than pop-drenched. The bones of the song get a chance to shine, and you have the opportunity to reflect on the literal meaning of the lyrics. “You’re so lucky I’m around” is one of my favorite Townshendian self-deprecating lyrics. I sang the harmonies softly until a bearded gentleman on my right heard me and increased the volume of his “let my love open the door / OOOOH.” Thank you, sir.
Let my love open the door.
It is traditional for the special guest to invite the house band back for at least one song, and here Pete prefaces it with a long explanation about how he first learned to play on a very rudimentary handmade guitar that belonged to a friend of his, and that a friend of his father’s said, “You know, if he can play that thing that well, he’d do very good with a real guitar” (at least according to how he told the story in his autobiography) but Saturday night he mentions how he’d had a trad jazz band because his friend John Entwistle played trumpet in the Boys Brigade, and he saw a banjo on the wall of his dad’s junk shop and asked if he could have it, and Cliff said he could if he’d work Saturdays.
With that, Pete asks for his 1928 banjo, and then tells us he’s going to perform the first song he ever sang for an audience, asks for the house band to return, before sharing that the song was actually “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Which, as I mentioned, you either hear it a lot or you don’t hear it because it’s so ubiquitous but this isn’t a dumb drunk tourist asking for the one song they know, this is Pete Townshend playing this song on banjo with feeling -- he knew all the verses! -- and the actual jazz musicians are visibly moved and the audience isn’t screaming PETE or HAPPY JACK or anything, really, just quietly singing the counterpoint with Pete Townshend who gets to come full circle for himself, and gets to play this gig that probably meant more to him to be able to do than it did for us to be able to watch it, and I am awestruck that I am singing Saints with Pete at Pres Hall but I am also grateful that I get to watch this person whose music has meant so much to me experience the same kind of magic he’s created for us.
It was the kind of night that you stay up talking for as long as possible because you just don’t want it to be over, and we sat in the courtyard behind Pres Hall drinking beer and talking about what just happened before going home and sitting in Alison’s backyard until the birds changed shifts and the light is just about to change in the predawn. Did we just see that?
At the Fairgrounds, Pete and Roger are onstage with the full orchestra and the horn section and the backing singers and the theme of this tour is “The Who Hits Back!” which is ostensibly a greatest hits kind of show, which opens with a medley of pieces from Tommy before going through some of the other radio hits and then some Quadrophenia. But they are playing this show in a large field at 5:30pm when it is still bright as midday and 92 degrees under a clear blue sky, and so I can’t really argue with the decision to open with the hits and then move into the larger symphonic sections, but it just reinforced how this was a stupid booking. I don’t want to watch Roger Daltrey try to be dramatic during “Behind Blue Eyes” without the aid of space and a solo spot and a little smoke and shadow. Instead, it is insanely bright out and we’re listening to -- “‘You Better, You Bet’??!” muttered the dude next to me, which is what I had written down in my notebook, like, really? Really, Roger? I want to meet someone who genuinely likes this song and is hoping to hear it when they buy a ticket to see the Who. It’s also one of the few songs in the repertoire that hasn’t been drastically restructured in order to accommodate where Roger’s voice is now.
I am over “Who Are You” being a TV show theme song in that I do not wince when the cheer goes up from the crowd in recognition. To me, it will always be the song about when Pete met the Sex Pistols. “Eminence Front” drags until it’s time for Pete to snarl the last verses, and by then it’s too little too late. “Behind Blue Eyes” earns us some mic twirling from Rog, but the stage is too small for this grouping of musicians and it feels less like an organic expression of energy than it does a square on the Who bingo card. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is anti-climactic in the middle of the set, but you can’t put both the Tommy and Quad medley sections together (they’re not really medleys because they’re playing the full version of the songs but they’re not pausing between them, which is why they feel medley-like) because it would start to feel like an assembly line.
“The Real Me” doesn’t have enough room to ever really get cooking, and then —“They’re doing ‘The Rock’? At a FESTIVAL?” I gripe, only to then realize: “Of course, ‘Love Reign’ is next and Roger needs a break.” Just like I did during WGFA, I stood there saying a small silent prayer that he can hit the notes he needs to hit in this one, and he does, and it works, there is a wave of excitement and then an ebb of anticipation; a man standing near me smiles and gently fist-bumps me as he leaves: “You got it,” he said, grokking why I was visibly relieved. I want Roger to do well, I want my Who memories to be of how much I loved watching them and not of that time I went to see them and Roger could not sing the songs. And as much as I griped about “The Rock,” the audience in general population that I could see from my spot were legitimately entranced, which says a lot, given that everything is working against the musicians to allow that to happen. We headed out towards the Gentilly gate as the trademark pulsing synth of “Baba O’Riley” began, and watched the drunk people in the back of the field go running towards the front so they could hear “Teenage Wasteland.” They will remember that time they saw the Who play at Jazz Fest, and they played all their favorite songs and Pete Townshend did a windmill and Roger Daltrey swung his microphone. I'll remember I got to watch one of my favorite bands with a good friend. And I'll remember that we watched Pete Townshend play Saints at Preservation Hall.