There is no playbook for properly handling a return to the scene of the most tragic incident in your career. But on Sunday night (May 15) at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, The Who provided a glimpse of what it should look like in their 43-years-in-the-waiting return to the city where 11 of their fans lost their lives during a Dec. 3, 1979 stampede during a two-hour show that was packed with emotion, poignant remembrances and a surprisingly tender moment from one of rock’s most acerbic, sharp-tongued legends.
All night long, a video ribbon around the soccer stadium displayed the names of the dead, who ranged in age from 15-27 — Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle, Karen Morrison, Walter Adams, Jr., Peter Bowes, Connie Sue Burns, David Heck, Teva Rae Ladd, Philip Snyder, Bryan Wagner, and James Warmoth — and the evening opened with a set from a local band made up of two local alumni who attended the 1979 show as well as the local high school that lost three beloved students that frigid, tragic night.
When the British rock legends took the stage, guitarist Pete Townshend approached the mic before the show-opening overture from Tommy and seemed poised to say something before appearing to get overwhelmed with emotion and stepping back, his eyes a visibly wet. About an hour later, though, Townshend finally found the words.
“I’ve been trying to think of what to say, what would be cool to say, what would be uncool to say, and really there’s no words that we can say that can mean (as much as) the fact that you guys have come out tonight and supported this event. Thank you so much,” he said to the capacity crowd as some fans shouted “we love you!”
After a joke about how the band was not taking a salary on Sunday night in order to provide funds for local charities, Townshend added, “But you paid and your money is going to great causes, many of which are related to what happened back here in Cincinnati in 1979, which is probably time for us to both remember and try to forget. Anyway, it’s so lovely to be here.”
Even before that, a very special guest ushered the Who onto the stage when Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder appeared via a two-minute pre-taped video in which he recalled how Townshend and Daltrey assuaged his emotions after 9 fans were killed during a PJ show at the Roskilde festival in August 2000. Lamenting that he was stuck in San Francisco due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the band’s team after he was “truly hoping” to be at the Cincinnati show, he said, “we’re all thinking about you deeply.”
Recalling his band’s own “incredibly painful” incident, Vedder said it was only through the band’s connection with the families of the lost that PJ were able to find any healing, a message that surely resonated deeply with those at the show who had a personal tie to the 11 Who fans who perished more than 4 decades ago.
Vedder thanked Townshend and Daltrey for their “support and wisdom” at the time, saying he will always be eternally grateful and telling the fans at TQL that he was feeling a “real kinship” with them. “It’s just such a great thing that you’re all gathering and recognizing those young people who will never be forgotten,” he said, tearing up as he expressed his love. “And say what a great thing it is that The Who and Cincinnati are getting together once again.”
While the hits-heavy set on the band’s “Who Hits Back!” tour ticked off just about all the favorite stops in their catalog — “Pinball Wizard,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Who Are You,” “Eminence Front,” “Join Together,” “You Better You Bet,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “The Real Me,” and bombastic set-closer “Baba O’Riley” — it was much more than a night for nostalgia for the boomer-heavy crowd.
Of course the line, “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” felt like it had added resonance during the opening overture as the band looked out at hundreds of yellow T-shirts worn in the front rows by fans from nearby Finneytown, Ohio, who were there to pay tribute to three classmates who died at the 1979 show that took place just 2 miles away at the old Riverfront Coliseum.
Energetic drummer Zak Starkey repeatedly pointed to his own yellow version of the shirt promoting the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund — founded in 2010 to memorialize the three Finneytown students — and guitarist Simon Townshend wore a signature orange and blue jersey for the stadium’s resident home soccer team, FC Cincinnati. And at night’s end, singer Roger Daltrey invited a number of Finneytown high school musicians and choir members to join the 48-piece orchestra on stage for the show-ending run through “Baba O’Riley,” inviting the gobsmacked teens to take a bow with the band.
There were a number of other moments that brought a lump to throats on a humid night heavy with memories and melancholy. Before “Love, Reign O’er Me,” pianist Loren Gold played a soft soliloquy as the video monitors on either side of the stage displayed filled with the black-and-white pictures of the 11 lost in 1979, with the 17,500-strong crowd applauding as each one went up and then cheering when the full list of the names, ages and home cities filled all the screens.
The show took place on May 15, an appropriate date for the ripping run through the Quadrophenia track “5:15” — and, the band’s manager Bill Curbishley told Billboard on Monday (May 16), also the amount ($515,000) the Who raised for local charities on Sunday night. As the first notes of “Love Reign O’er” me sounded, Daltrey came center stage in a blazing spotlight, raised his arms to the sky and stood still for over a minute, ending the song by wishing that love would also reign over all in attendance as he pointed to the crowd.
Then, huddled with the Finneytown teens at night’s end after the “O’Riley” refrain of “teenage wasteland” stopped echoing through the air, the singer said “you never get over it, but you gotta live.”