Chris Jordan, Staff Writer
The Who is a rock band with ambition.
The band had the ambition to create mini and full-blown rock operas in the 1960s. They also perfected the model of the rock power trio, were the first rock band to prominently use a synthesizer, and, of course, the first to become known for smashing their instruments.
Granted, the band's ambition seemed to have lagged for the better part of the '80s and '90s, but now we can say it's back.
That's because much of The Who's concert at a packed PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel Thursday night was devoted to new material.
"Endless Wire," scheduled to be released on Oct. 31, will be the band's first new record since 1982's "It's Hard." Judging by the performance Thursday night, the songs recall much of the theatrical power and instinctive melodic underpinning of The Who's classic work. Included in Thursday's set was the six-song mini opera, "Wire & Glass," which appears to be a narrative of rock 'n' roll stardom.
While the new songs fared well against the classics, there were plenty of groans regarding their inclusion on the set from The Who's longtime fans at the show, many of whom had the afterglow of a tailgating party in the Art Center's parking lot.
One thing about Thursday's show that did deserve a groan were the vocals of both lead singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend. When either one would hit a higher-end note, the sound would garble. This was especially frustrating when it came to the vocals of Daltrey, whose voice was weak and clipped throughout the show. He was often drinking from a cup of what appeared to be a warm liquid on stage, perhaps a sign that his voice was not at its prime Thursday.
Of course, in his prime, he's the godfather of screamo.
While the vocals were a distraction, the power of the band is unmistakable. Townshend's guitar work excited with his combining of lead and rhythm playing and trademark windmill stroke. Drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son, plays with the type of abandon and verve that recalls the band's late drummer, Keith Moon, and bassist Pino Palladino, who filled in for the late John Entwistle on the eve of the band's 2002 tour, ably interprets Entwistle's complex runs. Longtime Who sideman John "Rabbit" Bundrick, keyboards, and multi-instrumentalist Simon Townshend, Pete's brother, rounded out the band.
The Who appeared on a stage that was bare expect for five moving video screens at the rear, which showed an array of nostalgic, techy and Pop Art images. The 1960s-era scenes of the scooter-riding British mods — The Who's first fans — were priceless and ironic. There's a current ongoing mod revival in cities today where kids dress in stove-pipe pants and target shirts and ride scooters to nightclubs to listen to The Who's '60s records.
The Who played some of those '60s hits ("I Can't Explain," "The Seeker," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" and "My Generation") and their big '70s-era rockers ("Baba O'Riley," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Who Are You") Thursday night, in addition to the new stuff.
The encore was a suite of songs from 1969's landmark "Tommy," including the "See Me, Feel Me" refrain from "We're Not Gonna Take It." When Townshend windmilled his chords and Daltrey swung his microphone around the stage, the effect was majestic.