HERSHEY - The one thing you haven't come to expect from The Who in all its 40 years is tenderness.
Great power chords and explosive rock anthems? Yes. Eye-dabbing sentimentalism? Not so much.
True, some of guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend’s more subdued moments have been downright introspective, but Monday night at the Giant Center he and vocalist Roger Daltrey, along with their exceptional band, were able to blow the roof off the place and bring the crowd nearly to tears.
Only an act with 40 years of depth and a still-present lust for loudness (even moreso than some of their oldest fans, it seems) could accomplish this.
The duo, augmented by drummer Zak Starkey (former Beatle Ringo Starr’s son), guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete’s younger brother), bassist Pino Palladino and keyboardist Brian Keyroe filling in for longtime sideman John "Rabbit" Bundrick, offered a steady stream of hits as well as new material from the recently released "Endless Wire," the band's first disc of all-new material in 24 four years.
"Baba O'Reilly" was triumphant, ending with Daltrey’s blues harp filling in for the familiar violin on the recorded version. "Eminence Front" featured three guitars and a whole lot of funk. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere had all the sunniness of mid-1960s swinging London; and the savage anthem "Won’t Get Fooled Again" found new fury in an anti-war treatment thanks to the images projected on multiple tracked video screens.
The same screens made every number a visual as well as aural spectacle, interlacing vintage film footage, graphic design, and liquid lights. They found their most fitting use on "My Generation."
As if lifting the song away from its 1960s mod roots, the images made stops around the world and dipped into different pop subcultures (breakdancing and early hip-hop, punk, disco, swing, goth, 1990s rave culture) to prove that even a favorite oldie need not be a stale relic of its own time.
Townshend’s Fender Stratocaster alone, which he kept turning up as the evening went on, this night almost seemed like it could reverberate across the decades on its own.
But after all this and a memorable medley from the group’s rock opera "Tommy" as an encore, Daltrey sang in a quiet, yet ravaged voice the words to "Tea and Theatre" alongside Townshend’s unaccompanied acoustic guitar.
The song, part of the song cycle that is the center of "Endless Wire," finds a rock star at the end of his career pining for the good old days. One member of his band has died, another has gone insane, the song goes, and only two remain.
The Who themselves have lost half their ranks along the way, maniac drummer Keith Moon in 1978, and stalwart bassist John Entwistle in 2002.
"We did it all, didn’t we?" Daltery sang. "A thousand songs still smolder now. We played them as one. We’re older now…"
A cheer rose up, both in thanks for the two hours of hits and new favorites, and in appreciation of the band's perseverance across the years.
Death, addictions, legal hassles, creative blocks, infighting and indifference all nearly stopped the Who in their tracks at one time or another. Few bands would be so bold as to end their show with a lament essentially about itself. Few others could get away with it.
In a way the song was also a thank you from the band. After all, it was Townshend, guarded and often possessive about his songs and their meanings, who told the crowd that "after all this time they are more about you than about us anymore."