Super Bowl Half-Time with the (sort-of) Who

February 7, 2010


Notoriously tough on body and soul, football is a young man's sport.

Though fans who know their history honor the accomplishments of the stars of the past, they wouldn't want the New Orleans Saints to bring quarterback Archie Manning out of retirement for the Super Bowl, any more than they'd expect the Indianapolis Colts to despair because Johnny Unitas died in 2002.

Yet since the infamous "nipplegate" incident of 2004, the NFL has turned to an increasingly hoary roster of classic rockers well past their prime to crank out their dustiest hits during halftime--nostalgic blasts from the past in the middle of the game of the moment.

On Sunday, in the wake of Paul McCartney (2005), the Rolling Stones ('06), Prince ('07), Tom Petty ('08) and Bruce Springsteen ('09), Super Bowl XLIV gave us the saddest, most tired musical spectacle yet: the band that pretends to be the Who.

The Who hasn't really been the Who for 20 years now: Drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, and bassist John Entwistle passed away the same year as Unitas. Yet Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey endure under the corporate moniker with a group of ringers that includes Pete's brother Simon on second guitar, Welsh session veteran Pino Palladino on bass, Ringo's son Zak Starkey on drums and longtime sideman John "Rabbit" Bundrick" on keyboards.

Wearing a goofy hat and shades (at night), Townshend got things rolling with the ringing acoustic guitar chords that signal the start of "Pinball Wizard," though the band only gave the crowd in a Miami a taste of that anthem before shifting into "Baba O'Riley" ("teenage wasteland"--ha!). From there it was part of "Who Are You," an equally brief snippet of "We're Not Gonna Take It!" (the "See Me, Feel Me" section from "Tommy") and a big finale of "Won't Get Fooled Again."

The newest song on that set list was 32 years old; the oldest was 41. But it wasn't even the tunes' over-familiarity that was the biggest problem.

Townshend (64) and Daltrey (65) were woefully flat and way out of sync during the unison vocal parts, and they relied on empty theatrics to convey the musical energy of the Who when the Who really were the Who. But the lasers, fireworks, geysers of flame and an elaborate illuminated stage that put U2's current tour setup to shame couldn't disguise the fact that these were two grizzled old pros going through the motions for a high-profile payday, with barely a hint of the powers they possessed at their peak.

Somewhere between the pointless button-pushing and pop pandering of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake and the recent procession of sad old Hall of Famers phoning it in, there has to be a happy medium for Super Bowl music.

Heck, shortly before halftime, the NFL ran a self-promotional ad that tapped the Arcade Fire for its soundtrack--proving once again that the big game's commercials are often a lot more entertaining than what happens on the field.