Dan DeLuca, INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC
It's been 40 years since Pete Townshend wrote "My Generation," unwittingly giving critics barbs with which to mock him decades later. "Hey, didn't you hope you'd die before you got old? So why don't you f-fade away?"
The Who haven't. Instead, they have kept coming back, long after promising to leave for good - even though by now half the foursome is in the grave.
So when Townshend and Roger Daltrey took the stage of the sold-out Wachovia Center Tuesday night for the first show of their U.S. tour, hanging in the air was the question of whether these two sexagenarians could even come close to mustering the majestic power that marked them as one of the greatest - and loudest - of rock bands.
The answer came as immediately as could be hoped in the form of "I Can't Explain," the eloquently concise expression of inarticulateness that - like "The Seeker" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," which followed - harked back to the band's Mod years in '60s swinging London.
Both Daltrey and Townshend came out swinging. The former, dressed in blue jeans and blue-tinted, John Lennon-style wire-rimmed glasses, was barrel-chested and buff - and after putting down his cuppa tea, commenced to vein-busting bellowing. Brute physicality can't entirely make up for the once golden-voiced singer's loss of range, and even his lasso-like microphone tosses weren't as spot-on as back in the day. But the spirit was more than willing, and when "Won't Get Fooled Again" rolled around, he let out a mighty roar.
The gray-bearded Townshend hasn't aged so well, but his guitar-playing is in fine fettle, and he was ferocious on stage. He wore a striped skullcap that made him look like a cross between a mullah and a prison inmate - which brought to mind his status as a social pariah following 2003 child pornography allegations (he was never charged with a crime). And he played as if he had something to fight for, squeezing out jagged improvisational bursts of rhythm in the encore medley from Tommy and stepping into his propulsive power chords with gusto all night long. Would he windmill? Yes, he would.
The songs in the nearly 2 1/2-hour show spanned their career, though surprisingly, and disappointingly, the set was devoid of anything from the band's second grand rock opera, Quadrophenia.
There were well-chosen rarities, such as the '70s "Relay," and "Cry If You Want" from 1982's roundly despised It's Hard. And classic-rock landmarks, straight out of CSI: "Who Are You" (one of many songs in which drummer Zak Starkey proved himself a close approximation of, but no match for, Keith Moon) and "Baba O'Riley" (during which many fathers and sons, and a few fathers and daughters, sweetly sang, en masse: "It's only teenage wasteland!").
But what set the show apart among dinosaur-rock gatherings wasn't the high volume or the muddy sound mix or the spate of opening-night technical glitches. "See, the old stuff can sound just as crappy and unrehearsed as the new stuff," Townshend joked.
It was the amount of new music and the quality of it. A new Who album called Endless Wire is due out on Halloween, and the good news is it's not something to be frightened of.
Early on, the band - including Pino Palladino, ably and unobtrusively standing in for John Entwistle on bass, plus Townshend's multi-instrumentalist brother Simon, and the keyboard player John "Rabbit" Bundrick - played a seven-song excerpt from Wire & Glass, a rock mini-opera that will be included on Endless Wire.
Though it was new to them, the crowd stayed with it as if keyed in to Townshend's lines in "Mirror Door" about the artist's undying need for an audience: "If you don't hear me, how can I tell you? / If you won't listen, how can I speak?"
All the new material wasn't equally compelling: "Black Widow's Eyes" about the Stockholm Syndrome, was slow going. "Fragments," composed by a computer in tribute to Meher Baba, Townshend's late spiritual guru and the inspiration for "Baba O'Riley," came across as portentous. But two songs featuring Townshend's acoustic strumming as the backup for Daltrey's rough vocals were smashing stuff.
"The Man in a Purple Dress," accompanied by a video-screen backdrop of Head VI, a Francis Bacon painting of a pope with an exploding head, was all recalcitrant rage at the undeservedly pious. "How dare you be the one to assess me in this godforsaken place," Daltrey barked defiantly, on Townshend's behalf.
That unleashed anger was in contrast to "Tea and Theatre," a lovely, tender plea that was strong enough to close the show. And leave the crowd not booing, but Who-ing.