Chuck Darrow, Courier-Post Staff
Tuesday night's Wachovia Center Concert was billed as the kickoff of The Who's 2006 North American tour. A better description would probably be "dress rehearsal."
This should not be taken as a slap at the classic rock titans led by guitarist-composer Peter Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltrey. Judging by some mid-show remarks, Townshend would be the first to say, "Amen."
"The old stuff can sound just as crappy and unrehearsed as the new stuff," Townshend told the sold-out crowd following a mid-show rendition of "You Better You Bet" which, to that point, was actually one of the better efforts of the evening.
Indeed, the concert's first half had all the earmarks of an opening-night gig.
The standard material, including the band's traditional show-opener, "I Can't Explain," "The Seeker" and a surprisingly early-in-the-set "Baba O'Reilly," seemed tentative and even, at times, a bit soft around the edges. That was also the case for the presentation's first new song, "Good Looking Boy," a paean to Elvis Presley.
And then there was the program's most interesting sequence, the 10-minute, seven-segment "mini-opera," "Wire and Glass," the centerpiece of Endless Wire, the band's first album of new songs in more than 20 years that will be released Oct. 30.
According to Townshend, it's a semi-fictional work about a rock band of a generation subsequent to The Who's that takes its individual personalities from from Townshend, Daltrey and the unit's two deceased charter members, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle.
Townshend covered himself and his teammates by asking the audience for its forbearance before playing the piece. It was a brilliant strategy, earning instant sympathy: The work was dodgy as all get out; making matters worse, at one point, Daltrey's ear-bud monitors apparently conked out, leaving him to struggle mightily (and unsuccessfully), with the melodies.
But glimmers of the diamonds buried within poked through the rough, in particular during the catchy and ebullient "It's A Hit," and "Dream Come True," which references the death of 11 fans in a stampede before the band's concert in Cincinnati in December, 1979.
And it's a mortal lock the group will absolutely nail the entire suite when it returns in late November for its sold-out performances at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and the Wachovia Center.
Townshend's self-directed sarcasm had an interesting effect. What had been a program of somewhat mushy and out-of-step pieces suddenly got on track.
"You Better You Bet" was followed with the musically tricky "Who Are You," which snapped, crackled and popped it way toward being, arguably, the finest live version of the song Philadelphia has ever witnessed.
And from there on out, the set steamrolled its way toward a typically chill-producing pre-encore finale of "Won't Get Fooled Again." Along the way were stops at "Fragments," a new composition which Townshend said was composed by (not on) a computer, and a really cool "My Generation."
Individually, the players delivered.
Townshend remains a perpetual motion machine, skittering about his side of the stage, regularly serving up the "windmill" style of strumming that is as iconic as rock music gets. And his lead playing was inelegant and blunt, but oddly stylish and always to-the-point.
Daltrey is no longer the klaxon-toned belter of yore. But like Frank Sinatra before him, he's wisely chosen not to challenge the come-due toll demanded by the passage of time, but instead to adapt, transforming his tone from flashy, defiant brass to mellow, burnished woodwind.
And rest assured he's still able to summon ample amounts of spit and vinegar when necessary.
And of course, an incalculable contribution was made by drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son, who amazed once again with his sure-handed (and footed) evocation of Moon's inimitable bashing style.