By MIKE CHAIKEN
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters told the Irish Times back in November, “Rock and roll is a young man’s game.”
He said it as more of an apology since, obviously, he’s still performing rock music into his 40s.
But in its earlier days, truthfully, rock and roll was about being young. And the older generations simply didn’t understand. However, it’s inevitable that younger musicians—unless they leave the business—become older musicians.
And a recent spate of concerts at the Mohegan Sun Arena showed that older doesn’t necessarily mean obsolete—and age doesn’t diminish the skills to perform.
Earth, Wind & Fire on May 21 and The Who on May 24, with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as their opener, proved without a doubt that, to quote a much younger performer— the late Aaliyah— “Age ain’t nothing but a number.”
Earth, Wind & Fire has been around for 40 years.
In their younger days, Earth, Wind & Fire was a bit an anomaly in the world of funk music. Peers like the Ohio Players, like many funkmeisters, emphasized the raunch. The iconic Parliament-Funkadelic family emphasized the joys of altered states.
However, Earth, Wind & Fire was about love, positivity, and discovering a higher meaning for your life. And they did so with infectious grooves and pumping horn lines… and melodies that soared.
That positive energy filled the Mohegan Sun as the group—which now focuses on the trio of remaining members, Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson— savored the many hits that earned them a bevy of Grammies. They also rejoiced in a few deep cuts from their lengthy career.
Opening with “Boogie Wonderland,” it was clear from the get-go that Earth, Wind & Fire had lost none of their fire power through the passing decades. The grooves were tight. The horns percolated with their historic precision. And the vocals of Bailey were still as transcendent as ever. His ability to reach the highest notes puts many younger singers to shame.
And of course, there were the songs. Songs like “Serpentine Fire,” “Let’s Groove,” “Reasons” reminded me of how innovative the group was— mixing funk with soulful vocals, Latin and African rhythms, and good old pop music. It was simply ingenious.
Sometimes I’ve seen groups of a certain vintage sleepwalking through a performance, relying on nostalgia to get the audience through the night. But that wasn’t the case with Earth, Wind & Fire. This was a celebration. And these guys came to play, demonstrating their skills as musicians throughout the night.
The nearly sold out crowd did get their dose of nostalgia. But they also were treated to a performance by a band that is still on top of its game, even after the passage for four decades on stage and in the studio.
When Joan Jett released her first solo album, “Bad Reputation,” in 1980, she clearly demonstrated her allegiance to the then-younger generation of rockers. It was produced by former Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones. And Clem Burke, the drummer of Blondie, picked up the sticks behind the drum kit. She clearly was looking to overtake the older generation of rockers.
Later, she found herself firmly entrenched in the Grrrl movement, which proved to a younger generation of women that rock and roll didn’t have to be just a man’s game.
But with an extensive catalogue to her name, and at 58 years of age, Joan is now the older generation. And her gender has long since been dropped as a selling point for her hard rocking skills.
And as the opening act for The Who’s latest tour, Joan proved she still has that punk rock vibe. And she also demonstrated her skills as a rocker are unmatched.
She and her band— Thommy Price, Dougie Needles, Acey Slade—still can kick some serious butt. Whether they were reaching back to tracks from Jett’s days in the Runaways, “Cherry Bomb,” or exciting the crowd with her big hits such as “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Crimson and Clover,” Jett proved to be the perfect band to set the mood for the arrival of the headliners.
Again this wasn’t a performer who let the years diminish their skills. Jett and her crew offered a performance that was full of velocity and power. They clearly were enjoying their time on stage before a packed house at the Sun. They proved that the hair may be a little grayer, but it’s rock and roll and they still like it.
And they’re pretty damn good at it.
Their current tour is dubbed, “The Who Hits 50.”
And it’s almost unimaginable that the band—which is now singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townsend accompanied by a slew of other musicians including Townsend’s brother Simon on guitars, Ringo Starr’s son Zak on drums, and consummate studio musician Pino Palladino on bass—has survived through five decades of changing times.
In its earlier days, The Who in concert was known for its raw quality, power, and velocity. And sometimes, the songwriting skills of Pete Townsend were lost in the spectacle of a band that always seemed one step away from exploding into a million splinters.
Their classic concert album, “Live At Leeds” preserved forever in the minds of fans this dimension of the band’s character.
For the May 24 concert before a sold out crowd at Mohegan Sun, however, the band behind Pete and Roger understood clearly the best way to showcase Townsend’s amazing catalogue.
This wasn’t about raw power, but finesse.
It was clear that the years of working in theater—turning “Tommy” into a stage musical and revisiting “Quadrophenia”— Townsend has learned the joys of a skillful pit orchestra. And it was clear his band on stage was more about translating Townsend’s songwriting into an exciting show than presenting an aural assault for the audiences.
The song selection was excellent. The show opened with “I Can’t Explain.” The evening featured the obvious songs like “My Generation,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Love Reign O’er Me,” and “I Can See for Miles and Miles.” But there were also surprises, such as “I Am One” from “Quadrophenia,” “Eminence Front” from “It’s Hard,” the single, “The Seeker,” “A Quick One” from the album of the same name, and “You Better You Bet” from “Face Dances.”
The show, which was a celebration of 50 years, also was accompanied by clever short films that reflected the tracks being performed. They also were a great way of including the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle in the celebration. The founding members’ images appeared again and again in the clips.
As for Townsend and Daltrey, they clearly aren’t showing their 70-plus years. Townsend may have only performed the windmill guitar strum once and his guitars remained intact at the end of the show, but his guitar skills are still among the best of the 1970s guitar gods. And his singing still is one of the unsung heroes of The Who’s sound.
And Daltrey throughout the night showed why he was—is— one of the best singers in rock. At no time did his vocals falter. He may have had to reach out to a Union Jack decorated coffee mug to quench his parched throat. (The air conditioner of the Mohegan was drying him out.) But there was no sense this was a sad old man trying desperately to sing the notes he once sang as a young buck.
The May 24 show in Uncasville was clearly a performance by a band that loves what it is doing and what it has done.
And the audience loved every minute of it.
There were indications from the band that 50 years may mark the end of their touring career. But what a way to go out— on top of your musical game, and giving every indication that your legacy as rockers are assured.
There might be a convention that rock and roll is a young man’s game. But Earth, Wind & Fire, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and The Who proved that the decades don’t have to diminish your skills in an endeavor you really love.
I give Earth, Wind & Fire on May 21 four out of four stars.
I give Joan Jett and The Blackhearts on May 24 four out of four stars.
And I give The Who on May 24 four out of four stars.
PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN