Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
(11-09) 12:23 PST -- With half the original members dead and a two-hour show based substantially on the band's first new album in 24 years, the Who can be forgiven for not getting the stage up on casters and move it around the floor Wednesday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, as the Rolling Stones did Monday in Oakland.
But by the time the group brought the performance to a close with a still-rousing "Won't Get Fooled Again" and a 20-minute "Tommy" medley encore, the capacity crowd was on its feet yelling for more. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and company responded with "Tea and Theatre," a quiet little etude from the new album.
With high-tech giant widescreen video projection behind the band, the hired hands stationed at the back on risers and a keyboard player hidden behind amplifiers, the surviving members of the British rock landmark, ageless vocalist Daltrey and gutsy guitarist Townshend held down center stage by themselves: Who II.
The Who, at its best, was always a delicate mix of combustible elements. Even before drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, the original quartet could never count on all of these volatile parts running in sync. Anyone who attended the band's 1973 performance at the Cow Palace -- where Moon passed out twice and the band finished the set with a volunteer drummer who climbed out of the crowd -- knows that.
But at its best, none was ever better. Anyone who was at the 1969 Fillmore West performance of "Tommy" or the 1971 San Francisco Civic Auditorium show after "Who's Next" knows that.
More than four years after the death of bassist John Entwistle on the eve of a U.S. tour, the Who return with "Endless Wire," a new record that is dense and oblique. Although they sprinkled Who concert staples through the show, the program concentrated on material from the new album that kept the audience in their seats.
The songs from "Endless Wire" were so listless and obscure they made something like "You Better You Bet" sound like a classic. Since when was "Eminence Front" a towering peak in the Who repertoire?
Drummer Zak Starkey made it possible at all. The son of Ringo Starr was hand-trained by Moon, who gave young Starkey a replica of his own drum kit for the kid's first set. Starkey, who also plays with '90s Brit rock phenoms Oasis, gave the signature Who sound the crashing, rolling, detonating rhythmic explosions it needs.
Bassist Pino Palladino handled Entwistle's bass parts admirably. Starkey and Palladino first played the songbook in the backup band on a 1994 "Daltrey Sings Townshend" solo tour, during the long Who hiatus. Townshend's much younger brother, Simon Townshend, sang Entwistle's high harmonies and added some rhythm guitar. J.J. Blair filled in for keyboardist John Bundrick, whose wife was gravely ill in England.
The flashy video screen ran conceptual videos that commented on the songs -- all those shots of young Moon and Entwistle behind the inevitable opener, "I Can't Explain," did lend the proceedings a certain somber tone at the start. The broad lighting scheme democratized the band, and spotlights bounced, irritatingly, into the eyes of the audience all night, making it difficult to watch the stage.
The band played the new album's six-song "mini-rock opera," "Wire and Glass," whose story is so complex that Townshend has posted the novella on which it is based on his Web page (the Who is very Web conscious -- live recordings from every show on the current tour will be sold for charity on the band's site). In concert, the songs just zipped by, inconsequential, harmless and obscure.
Some of the other songs from "Endless Wire" -- the pseudo-folkie "A Man in a Purple Dress" or "Black Widow's Eyes" -- have some heft, but they are instant trivialities in the Who's distinguished catalog. The dud album is no embarrassment, just strangely without character. But Townshend's solo writing has been spotty at best over the years since the Who, and the burden of trying to resurrect that heavy Who aura must have weighed on him.
With the Who, Townshend is mired in music he made as a youth in the spirit of collaboration with three very disparate accomplices. The combination made some great rock music -- as great as it gets. But now as a tribal elder, he appears caught between his desire to forge ahead and his debt to the past. He refuses to be simply an oldies act, reliving past glories, but his latest work is remote from the body of great work he created in those magic years with the Who.