Bradley Barmbarger, Star-Ledger Staff
NEW YORK -- Whether one considers rock's graying icons dinosaurs or sages, they face an interesting challenge: how to age with their art while maintaining their identity and audience.
Bob Dylan reflects his years with wit and idiosyncratic grace, which makes him as avant-garde now as he was in his youth. The Rolling Stones are defiant, still getting away with not acting their age through a mix of hardy talent, forgiving bodies and sheer force of will.
The Who -- that is, the original band's survivors, singer Roger Daltrey, 62, and guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend, 61 -- have carved an autumnal niche for themselves fitfully. They recovered from 2002's sudden death of bassist John Entwistle, honing a six-piece band that sounds like a more persuasive remodeling of their act than any since drummer Keith Moon's passing in 1978. It's not really "The Who," of course, but it's "a Who" -- and, on a good night, still a thrilling one.
There is the issue, though, of fresh material. The Stones recorded some fierce new songs prior to their latest tour, several of which they play alongside classics with blunt pride. At Madison Square Garden on Monday (the first of a two-night stand), The Who performed a much bigger ratio of new songs, but Daltrey and Townshend presented them almost apologetically, as if anticipating restiveness in the crowd.
The first all-new Who album in 24 years - "Endless Wire" - doesn't come out until Oct. 31, so the audience's merely polite response to the unfamiliar songs is understandable. (Probably only hard-core fans sought out this summer's EP previewing an 11-minute suite from the album.) But a passionate preface to these numbers by Townshend would have surely stoked enthusiasm. The songs are subtly textured and ambitious, yet they ring with musical and lyrical echoes from The Who catalog.
Thematically, Townshend's new songs draw on his past preoccupations - the synergistic power of youth and music, the grand potential and problematic reality of life in a wired world. But he also deals with time's specter, as well as the darker aspects of the 21st century. "Black Widow's Eyes," which sonically evokes "Quadrophenia," refers to what the male survivor of a terrorist attack remembers most vividly - the alluring windows to the female bomber's soul.
The Who delivered "Wire and Glass" - the album's "mini-opera" related to Townshend's Internet novella "The Boy Who Heard Music" - as the EP's six-song excerpt, restricting the musical theater in favor of headlong energy akin to the band's '60s experiments. The finale, "Mirror Door," touchingly name-checks late peers and influences, from Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash to Led Zeppelin and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son, in The Who drum chair for a decade now) was the suite's prime mover, his loose-limbed propulsion like a more precise ricochet of Moon's style.
Townshend's latter-day guitar sound supplants the harmonic roar of his old Gibson-fueled Hiwatt stacks with a Fender tone that's lean but just as mean. Almost brazen, his playing veered from electro-acoustic filigree in new songs to all-out metallic savagery in vintage tunes; he vibrated with gleeful relish during intense solos in the opening "Can't Explain" and the "Tommy" medley encore, windmill power chords and all.
Having lived by shredding his vocal cords, Daltrey has to contend with an instrument whose golden years are long gone. He seemed tetchy, as sound problems for him led to a moody stage vibe at times. (The singer also seems to have instructed Townshend not to talk much between songs.) Mostly, though, Daltrey was in gritty form, with Townshend and his vocalist/guitarist brother, Simon, providing close harmonies besides. When left on his own, Daltrey could still gut it out like the stubborn street tough he used to be, even managing a primal scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again."
The catchy power-pop of "You Better You Bet" -- which didn't sound like classic The Who in 1981 but does now -- was a highlight, the crowd backing Daltrey on every chorus. In the night's boldest touch, the show ended not with an electric anthem but with The Who's principals sharing a poetic new acoustic duet -- "Tea & Theatre," a tale of sad remembrance and summing up in old age (sentiments not so distant from recent Dylan). When the years showed in Daltrey's naked voice here, it was apt and moving.