Classic rock in its best live manifestations has become The Picture of Dorian Grey. The heads on the stage become grey and wizened, while the sound produced by aging lungs and fingers remains deceptively young.
The difference is that Oscar Wilde's parable is a gothic horror story. Shows like The Who's stand at the Air Canada Centre are more like a mass-market wonder story, with much approving attention focused on the band's ability to buck the burden of years and hard living.
Strictly speaking, The Who is half dead. The passing of bassist John Entwistle in June cut the original quartet down to two. In any case, the band has been dormant for longer than it was creatively active. It performed its first farewell concert 20 years ago, not long after its last original album.
"I'm dealing with a memory that never forgets," Roger
Daltrey sang in You Better You Bet, as the large crowd roared along with him. It was one of many retrospectively prophetic lines. A few songs were engulfed by meanings unforeseen at the time of their writing. The breezy vision of freedom articulated in Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere sounds a lot less bohemian when you know that the performers are millionaires.
Daltrey and Pete Townshend openly acknowledged the passage of time in The Kids Are Alright, which they filled out with reflective inserts about their bygone youth and the state of their own kids. The effect was chilled somewhat by the following My Generation, with its inevitably ironic wish that "I hope I die before I get old."
It was a dynamic show that did not attempt to recreate the sound of the earliest, leanest version of the band. The bulked-up arrangements and extended jams were essentially an early-eighties take on the old material. This incarnation of The Who was like a clock that still ticked loudly, but whose hands were frozen at the last time recorded when the mechanism was fully
Even My Generation, the most currently potent of all songs from the catalogue, had a fatter sound and looser beat than the iconic recorded version. It was as if the players had forgotten the very features that other, younger bands have remembered and imitated.
The best single item on the show was Behind Blue Eyes, a still powerful song that began with a stripped verse and chorus by Daltrey and Townshend before pulling in the rest of the touring sextet. It achieved in one number a museum tour of the entire Who experience, from the mean-street sound of the sixties to the penthouse upholsteries of later days.
Daltrey sang strongly with only a slightly roughened edge, and worked some familiar lariat-like tricks with his microphone cord. Townshend's numerous solos proved that he can still tease old formulas into shapes that sound new, and gratified the fans with the whirling full-arm stroke he invented and which probably only makes practical sense to a golfer.
Drummer Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) and bassist Pino Palladino offered fair if uncompelling recreations in the style of Keith Moon and Entwistle respectively. John "Rabbit" Bundrick provided some automatic-sounding keyboard action, while Townshend's brother Simon stepped in on backing guitar and vocals.
It was a fine concert of its type, and the fans absorbed everything with the greedy openness of a sponge. Shows like this require a certain complicity between musicians and audience, and as long as that remains possible, The Who need never trouble themselves further with The Why.