Jeff Johnson, Staff Reporter
If your mantra in 1965 was "Hope I die before I get old," you'd better come out every night of your 2006 tour with both barrels blazing -- especially with top-end tickets selling for $200.
That's the dilemma facing the two surviving original members of the Who, guitarist Pete Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltrey, ages 61 and 62, respectively. Far from f-fading away, they're fronting a powerful sextet -- and yes, every member is contributing significantly, although the four "junior" members are aligned behind the two stars onstage. Their thundering, intense sound kept a sold-out United Center crowd thoroughly entertained for more than two hours Monday night.
Their show was far from glitch-free, though. Daltrey, rock's onetime golden boy, still looks cool in his blue-tinted shades. But he has lost his upper register, and on Monday his voice was reduced to a hoarse rasp. He first showed signs of strain about a third of the way through the concert, during the Elvis Presley tribute number "Real Good Looking Boy." Even his patented microphone swings seemed limp and awkward compared to his vintage form.
The three-part harmonies sung by the Townshend brothers -- Pete and Simon, the group's second guitarist -- and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick became increasingly prominent in the vocal mix, to the point that during the medley of "My Generation" and "Cry If You Want," Daltrey made a pit stop backstage. That left his longtime partner, with a cry of "We can't die!," to carry the day with his tasty blues licks. But for some reason his guitar was often buried in a muddled wall-of-sound roar.
It was clear that something was amiss with Daltrey, and when he returned for the lengthy encores, starting with "Don't Get Fooled Again," he joked, "Somebody's got something that I'm allergic to." He then pointed an accusing finger at a guy down front and asked, "Is it you?"
Townshend has had a longtime love affair with Chicago, and the affection he expressed for the city seemed genuine, not the usual "It's great to be in, uh, Cleveland" stage patter. "This is one of my favorite places on the planet," he declared, then proceeded to list its many virtues. Indeed, his movements reflected the sheer joy of playing before the wildly appreciative audience, his trademark windmill chords and unbridled leaps and pivots as defiant of aging as the band's anthem.
Pino Palladino, who took over on bass after John Entwistle's death in 2002, is a terrific musician, but "My Generation" was one of his few chances to shine during the show. Drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son, has no pretentions of being Keith Moon, who died in 1978, but he's a good approximation of Kenney Jones, the band's second drummer. Simon Townshend is a valuable utility man, and Bundrick's brilliance contributes mightily to the overall sound.
The Who is touring behind the upcoming CD "Endless Wire," due out on Halloween. They played 10 songs from the disc, including a six-song excerpt from a "mini-rock opera," as Townshend describes it, called "Wire & Glass." But Townshend introduced the material in a defensive tone, promising the audience, "It's pretty short," and urging them to "hang in there with us." And the band seemed to rush through it with a "get-it-over-quick" attitude.
The best of the new material was not part of the "Wire & Glass" segment, but "Man in a Purple Dress." Played with a backdrop of Francis Bacon's "Head VI," a painting of a pope's head exploding, with only Townshend's acoustic guitar accompanying him, the song gave Daltrey a chance to rail against the power-hungry, pompous and self-righteous.
The crowd was attentive and appreciative of the new songs, but every time the band broke into a "Baba O'Riley" or "Who Are You," the most beloved older numbers, a roar of recognition would go up from the crowd, eager to display their own vocal chops through a sing-along.