More than any performer, Pete Townshend is keenly aware of rock's power, history and standing, and the way that past triumphs and tragedies can weigh heavily on the shoulders of his legendary group.
One of the archetypal British bands, The Who recorded the Sixties anthem "My Generation", invented the concept album, triumphed at Woodstock, pioneered the use of synthesisers, and inspired mods, punks and even the blind alley that became Britpop. Indeed, their influence still rings in the ears of local heroes the Kaiser Chiefs. The Who are local heroes too, having recorded Live at Leeds, the best live album of all time - see me after class - at the venue 36 years ago, a fact acknowledged with the unveiling of a blue plaque earlier in the day.
"Our set will certainly fail to match the now legendary show we did in 1970," Townshend wrote on his website the day before the gig. Could he possibly be wrong?
At 8.30pm, they walk on and launch into "Who Are You?", Roger Daltrey wearing glasses and Bermuda shorts while Townshend, sporting dark shades and a white T-shirt, leans casually on a high stool as if egging the cynics on. The guitarist soon explodes across the stage with trademark windmills as the title track of the 1978 album reaches its climax. They follow with "Can't Explain", their opening gambit of 1965, Townshend jumping on the spot excitedly before playing the staccato intro of "The Seeker", a 1970 single they rarely perform.
The lyrics namecheck Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Timothy Leary and act as the perfect prelude to the mini-opera "Wire and Glass", a six-song suite and a taster of The Who's first studio album in 24 years, scheduled for the autumn. Packing six songs into 11 minutes shows that the master of the zeitgeist understands the short attention span generation but I can't help feeling that some of the segments could have been developed more.
We're back on familiar territory with "Baba O'Riley", its synth loop and its "teenage wasteland" motif, but The Who surprise the sweaty fans with "Let's See Action" (1971) and "Relay" (1973). Towards the end of "Relay", as the singer and guitarist spar centre stage, The Who recapture the improvised magic of Live at Leeds as if drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle were there in more than spirit. Zac Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, who was taught by Moon, sticks his tongue out as he rains down on the drumkit, and Pino Palladino does a fine job on bass, with Pete's brother Simon providing second guitar and John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards.
The audience's energy level sags but a medley of "Pinball Wizard"/"Amazing Journey"/ "See Me Feel Me" sees The Who rolling back the years. "Won't Get Fooled Again" proves the perfect finale, Townshend windmilling like crazy. Forty-two years on from their first steps as the High Numbers, the group who mentored U2 and Pearl Jam still talk to every generation.