Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend still go by the Who, though cynics could dub the outfit that played at Verizon Center on Thursday the Why. More than any of its British Invasion comrades, this band once drew so much of its brawn and audience by dwelling on its youthfulness -- "Young Man Blues" and "Hope I die before I get old!" and all that -- that a big portion of its fan base felt the Who's first farewell tour, a lackluster outing that took place a full 25 years ago, came too late.
Then there's the fact that the other half of the original quartet, the lineup responsible for the songs most people want to hear, died stereotypical rock-and-roll deaths years ago. (Beatles heir Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino now sit in for Keith Moon and John Entwistle, respectively.) So, why?
Well, once Townshend stepped onstage and hit the opening power chords to "Can't Explain," every bit as dirty and raw as he'd ever hit them, the question seemed moot. Forget the age of the riff or the riffer (Townshend is 61) or the fans he was riffing for. That opening -- that sound -- is forever young. And in just a few bars, an arena full of middle-agers who nowadays only clench their fists in fits of road rage were reminded of the awesome, thrilling power of great rock-and-roll. If the reminder came from a glorified tribute band, well, who cared?
The two-hour-plus set had several other validating moments, too. Transcendence, alas, took a breather during any of the newer tunes. The most likable of the batch was "Real Good Looking Boy," a song from a 2004 greatest hits collection that Daltrey dedicated to Elvis Presley, whom he credited with inspiring him to be a rocker. (Given Townshend's legal foibles of recent years, the tune's title is a giggle-inducer.) Less successful was "Wire and Glass," a 10-minute mini-rock opera from "Endless Wire," the first Who record in 24 years, which provided customers for beer and food vendors.
"Now for the big feature," Townshend said after the new opera, and then a hit blitz followed -- "Baba O'Riley," "My Generation," "Won't Get Fooled Again," and a medley from the old opera "Tommy."
During gloriously sloppy jams on the vintage stuff, Townshend flaunted his two main contributions to the rock guitar realm: the simultaneous playing of rhythm and solo licks, and the windmill strum. Daltrey, whose voice occasionally gave out earlier in the evening, positively roared. "I was young when I wrote all the good ones," Townshend said after one oldie offering. A fan upfront apparently tried to comfort Townshend by saying he was still young. "I'm not [expletive] young!" Townshend yelled back. Long live rock.