YOUNG rockers don't know any better than to write brash anthems like the songs that gave the Who its place in rock history. Aging rockers have to deal with disillusionment, ambivalence, waning energy and nostalgia. At the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater on Wednesday night, starting a string of local concerts, the Who grappled with both its past and its present. It will never be the band it was in the 1960's and 70's, when every power chord delivered by Pete Townshend's windmilling arm sounded like an insurrection, and when Roger Daltrey was a cocky, pugnacious rock archetype. But it can still pack a kick.
On the Who's umpteenth tour since its farewell concerts in 1982, the band has something new: songs from its first full album of new material in 24 years, set for release on Oct. 31. Once again, Mr. Townshend, 61, is writing songs for Mr. Daltrey, 62, to sing, reclaiming both hard-rock muscle and introspection to reveal what's on his mind now: memories, the state of the world, metaphysics. Onstage, Mr. Townshend was almost apologetic about including new songs amid the oldies. The new songs are decidedly mixed, but they've freed the Who from its routines.
"My Generation" started as usual, with power chords, complaints and defiance. Video screens showed not just the Who's own generation, England's Mods, but punks, breakdancers and jitterbuggers. Then the three-minute original grew into a psychedelic jam, eventually merging with "Cry If You Want," a song about lost youth from the Who's 1982 retirement album, "It's Hard." In between, Mr. Townshend crooned into the microphone: first, "Hope I die," then "Hope I die before I get old," then "I hope I get old," then "What am I gonna be when I grow up?"
Mr. Townshend has never been subdued onstage, but now he is more clearly than ever the band's vital center. Mr. Daltrey's voice is weathered, straining at high notes, and when he twirled a microphone on its cord, it looked hokey. But Mr. Townshend's guitar - in power chords, wailing blues lines, probing modal phrases, architecturally placed riffs and savage little trills - is still a bulwark and a goad.
Pino Palladino on bass and Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) on drums, replacing the Who's original members, recreate the old rhythm section's rumbles and crashes. (Simon Townshend, Pete's brother, on second guitar, and John Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards complete the band.) Few surprises remain in songs like "Who Are You" or "Substitute," but they were unimpeachably solid, and the inevitable "Tommy" medley was nothing short of majestic.
The new songs, which will be on an album called "Endless Wire," reshuffle old Who ideas; "Fragments" even reprograms the synthesized sounds of "Baba O'Riley." At Jones Beach the band played a 14-minute "mini-opera," about three kids forming a band and getting a hit, that reached back to the early Who's Motown beat and the suitelike constructions of its later songs.
There was a folky anticlerical protest song, "Man in a Purple Dress," that sounded like an also-ran at open-mike night. But at least one of the new songs - "Black Widow's Eyes," about Stockholm syndrome - had both expansive melodies and a gathering suspense. It's not a generational anthem to eclipse "Won't Get Fooled Again," or "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," but striving gives the Who reason enough to persist.