Whither the Who? That’s a big question for anyone perusing the Woodstock 50 lineup and noticing that the biggest act from the original 1969 lineup that is still around and active is not on the bill. The timing might have even seemed fortuitous, since the band recently announced plans for a 29-city American tour this summer and fall that just happens to have a gaping hole through the entire month of August.
But there was little sentimentality involved when the idea of the 50thanniversary festival came up. For the Who, “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” (to quote Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”) this summer means playing Madison Square Garden, not Watkins Glen.
“The dates don’t work out,” a rep for the band tells Variety. “They aren’t back in the States until Sept 6 to kick off the second leg of the tour.” The Who’s North American tour runs May 7 through June 1, then resumes Sept. 6 through Oct. 23, with stops at such iconic locations as the Hollywood Bowl, Boston’s Fenway Park and Cleveland’s Blossom Music Center on top of MSG (as well as such un-iconic venues as Jiffy Lube Live and the Little Caesars Arena).
That still doesn’t explain why the Who couldn’t make an additional trip to the States during their time off in August if they really, really wanted to. And there seems to be a simple answer to that: They really, really don’t want to.
“What would be the point?” Roger Daltrey told Rolling Stone in January, when the two surviving members were doing press to publicize the tour rollout. “I can’t work outside in the heat anymore like that in August. It’ll kill me. I got really big problems with heat now due to my meningitis. But I think they should do it with young bands. I don’t see why they should have us there. … And they couldn’t afford us anyway!” In a separate interview with Billboard, he said that no one had approached them, as of early January, but even if they did, “You can’t redo Woodstock because the stars of Woodstock were the audience. You can celebrate the date, but you can’t redo (the festival). … I really wouldn’t be interested in something like that.”
Pete Townshend concurred, also citing scheduling conflicts before getting down to deeper-rooted reasons for not playing Woodstock 50. “Unfortunately the dates are wrong for us,” he told Billboard. “I don’t know that the Who should be there… or (that) any of the people who played there first should be there. If John Sebastian were there and maybe Richie Havens was still alive and did it — very, very lovely people who we were kind of connected to… Sly isn’t working. Santana could do it. It just wouldn’t be the same.”
Some of the fellow Woodstock veterans Townshend mentioned turned out not to share his compunctions about doing the anniversary festival. John Sebastian and Santana are among nine performers booked for the Aug. 16-18 festival who were there the first time around. The others making a return trip are Melanie, Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, Creedence’s John Fogerty, CSNY’s David Crosby, and the former members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane who will be coming back as part of Dead & Company and Hot Tuna, respectively. (Santana will also be playing a separate show that same weekend at an amphitheater on the original Woodstock grounds, as will Arlo Guthrie.)
Of course, these veteran acts are but a drop in a vast sea of Woodstock 50 acts that mostly skews much, much younger, with headliners including Jay-Z, the Killers, Chance the Rapper, the Black Keys, Miley Cyrus and Halsey.
Dead & Company is the only act with a connection to Woodstock 50 that commands headliner status at a festival this big and multi-generational, and the Who surely would have wanted top billing as a condition of their return. The only other major acts who could have returned from the original fest and didn’t are Joan Baez, who is well into her farewell tour; Sly Stone, who has been an elusive presence, to say the least, for decades; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, whose individual members have sent clear signals that they are never, ever getting back together.
“Young people in America, I think, are… starting to feel like they have their hands on some power, and I think that was how everybody felt in America the time of the first Woodstock,” Townshend elaborated in January. “But now you have South by Southwest, and there’s Coachella, so this stuff is already there, and it’s already happening. But what they can’t do with Woodstock again is… it can’t be the first big festival that kind of gets out of control. That’s what was so exciting about Woodstock was it was nuts, just chaos.” Woodstock 50 organizers are no doubt hoping that chaos, like the Who, will not be making a return visit to the festival.
If the Who had chosen to play Woodstock 50, their set would have sounded very different than it did 50 years ago, and not because at 75 years old Daltrey has actually lost that much lung power. Their Moving On! tour will find them accompanied by a 52-piece orchestra each step of the way, and Townshend has said he is “leaving the Marshall stacks at home” this time. They’ve gone out of their way to say this is not officially a farewell tour, although Daltrey indicated it might be, saying “I have to be realistic that this is the age I am and voices start to go after a while.”
The two surviving members of the Who have also been recording their first album together in 13 years, although Townshend has said it probably will not be ready for release until during or after the fall leg of the tour.