Who fans expecting a string of oldies and a few windmill guitar chords from the band's Pete Townshend did not see what they came to see at a sold-out PNC Bank Art Center Sunday night.
Instead, The Who performed a dynamic, riveting version of its 1973 rock opera "Quadrophenia," which used actors, film and a 12-piece band. The performance exceeded all expectations for a band whose creative heyday was way back in the 1970s.
"Quadrophenia" is The Who's less-successful follow-up to its 1969 smash rock opera "Tommy." It marked quite a development for The Who, with its use of orchestral elements and a meatier hard-rock sound.
The story follows the adventures of Jimmy, a confused, desperate 1960s English youth. The plot hinges on rock 'n' roll themes of rebellion, alienation and yearning. For Sunday's concert, a narrative was provided via film interludes, and actors played roles to illustrate the action.
However, all the show business flash would have amounted to little if the musicians were going through the motions. They weren't.
Townshend moved from electric to acoustic guitar, and his vocals were especially emotive on "I'm One." Singer Roger Daltrey is a genetic marvel as his voice -- probably the best in rock 'n' roll -- was as strong as ever.
Daltrey's physique has seemingly not changed since his "Tommy" days. He's as athletic as ever. Bassist John Entwistle still has his chops and shined in his solo on "5:15."
Not to be overlooked were the musicians accompanying The Who. Zak Starkey -- Ringo Starr's son -- is rock solid if not as flamboyant as his predecessor, the deceased drummer Keith Moon. Simon Townshend, Pete's younger brother, handled most of the guitar leads ably. One of the more compelling moments of the show was Simon's trade off to Pete on lead guitar in the work's final movement. A five-piece horn section was a huge plus, and the two synthesizers gave the sound a full wash.
In a fitting gesture of acknowledgment, longtime Who keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick was positioned prominently next to Starkey. In past tours, the Who had placed him the shadows.
P.J. Proby Proby was suitable campy in the role of Godfather, for which he wore a leather jacket and pants. Ben Waters conveyed a cool aloofness as the Ace Face.
One of the biggest treats of the performance was the fantastic synchronization of the video images with the music. It's not an easy trick to have the music remain vital while playing along to what is essentially a movie. Pink Floyd's shows have historically traded energetic passion for the visual effects, but The Who was up to the task. The images, on a screen behind the stage and screens around the theater, greatly enhanced the experience.
After "Quadrophenia," the Who performed acoustic and semi-acoustic classics, including "Substitute," "The Kids Are Alright" and "Who Are You." On the opus "Won't Get Fooled Again," the sharing of a single microphone by Daltrey and Townshend on the chorus spoke volumes about the good feelings between the often-at-odds pair.
Like U2's "Popmart" tour, The Who's live rendition of "Quadrophenia" successfully transcended an ordinary live concert experience. What could have easily disintegrated into an overblown exercise of embarrassing nostalgia was instead a triumph of creativity and celebration.
The Who performs with Drivin' and Cryin' at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Blockbuster/Sony E-Center, 1 Harbor Blvd., Camden. Tickets are $53, $23. Call (609) 365-1300 for more information.