It's been nearly 25 years since the Who had anything new to tell us. They haven't brainstormed a fresh batch of material since 1982's "It's Hard."
But on their current tour - which hit the Garden Monday and last night, and which trucks into the PNC Bank Arts Center tomorrow - they devoted a full third of the night to baby material from their new "Endless Wire" CD. After a quarter-century of playing only reconsidered songs, this fascinated by definition. But it also carried a broader challenge than the show ideally should have.
"Endless Wire" won't be out for another six weeks, meaning fans had to work hard to fathom untested cuts on the fly. Given the fog of a live show - made worse by some sound bugaboos on Monday - this was no easy feat. Things got especially dicey during a six-part mini-opera, where the group jerked between a dizzying variety of tunes and riffs, suggesting a movie trailer run on fast-forward.
This much seemed clear: The best new songs recall the slashing chords and flowing melodies of midlevel Who. None of the pieces had the catchiness, or virile command, of the band's best, but that's too high a standard to fairly measure anything against.
The broader problem for a modern Who show is how to present the many well-flogged warhorses they trot out with something akin to verve. The band's best attempts came when they veered furthest from the script to jam. In both "My Generation" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," Pete Townshend windmilled his way through newly violent riffs, mixing it up with the bash of Zak Starkey's drums and the intrusion of Pino Palladino's bass. The show also benefited from uncommonly vivid video images, many of them milking Who nostalgia.
That's a dangerous thing for a band already overdevoted to its past. The point stuck here, since recent Who tours have featured more muscular takes on the classics than turned up this time. But the guys still impressed by daring to end with "Tea and Theater," a new piece that deals with the death of half their members in a way more moving than mawkish. It hinted that the Who may have something many long ago gave up on expecting from them: a future.