Nothing gets in their way, not even old age.
The Who opened the last leg of its latest rebound on amazingly strong legs. The British invaders busted out one of rock's most hallowed back catalogs on Sunday night and, before 16,284 people at Mars Music Amphitheatre near West Palm Beach, flung it around for more than two hours in what guitarist-singer Pete Townshend gleefully called "a greatest-hits show."
"But we don't give a ..." he added.
Not about perceptions. Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle focused on something more primal: maximum rock 'n' roll. The show was a stripped-down marvel, devoid of the ensemble fuss and trappings -- "The Who on Ice" as Townshend once said -- that marked previous retired-not-really tours. The Who trafficked in nostalgia, touring the arc of a 36-year career, and transcended it by sheer musical will.
Townshend, 55, smashed no guitars. But the performance -- a concentrated mix of bliss, finesse and brute force -- sustained the anxious expectation that he might. The prickly camaraderie in the songs also carried over. Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle jawed at one another good-naturedly between songs. They are having the time of their lives entertaining the world.
Joined by drummer Zak Starkey -- son of Beatles beat-keeper Ringo Starr -- in the seat of the late Keith Moon, and by longtime friend John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards, the core trio opened at a sprint with their first single, 1965's Can't Explain, and tossed two more pretty grenades from their early "maximum r&b" spell: Substitute and Anyway Anyhow Anywhere.
If Can't Explain sounded quaint with its bright, clean chords and call-and-response chorus, the latter two got right in the audience's face. Daltrey sang Substitute -- "Look pretty young but I'm just backdated" -- in self-mocking tones that made the indictment of fakery as stinging as ever. Daltrey wasn't backdated, but in slacks and unbuttoned white shirt looked like the youngest, most fit and chiseled man ever to be 56 years old. He sounded just as vigorous. The snotty defiance of Anyway Anyhow Anywhere -- "Nothing gets in my way, not even locked doors" -- was coined by songwriter Townshend as a London "mod" kids' manifesto, but any young skate-punker today would be galvanized by Daltrey's resounding growl. And there was Townshend to nail the point home, windmilling his arm across the guitar, ripping chords with a tensile power and single-string clarity that no other pair of hands can match. His playing has improved with age. Townshend has added confident soloing to his peerless rhythmic chops. People focus on Daltrey as the embodiment of the band's physicality, but Townshend, in mod polka-dotted shirt, appeared in remarkable shape and in great spirits.
Entwistle, 55, added propulsion to burn and melodic range on bass. Starkey kept the legendary Moon's furious, punctual pace; his strategy for the night was simply to lower his head and not ever let up. Townshend introduced Relay, written in 1971 but only just released on a solo reclamation project called Lifehouse, as "a song about the Internet." (And you thought Al Gore invented that.) Lifehouse was an ambitious concept album, never realized by the Who, about life in a wired-up and electronically cocooned world. The band had fun airing it out on Sunday. But this was not, generally, a night for obscurities. Drowned led into a heady version of Pinball Wizard, from the pioneering rock opera Tommy (1969). The Who pulled out classic songs from classic albums including Who's Next (1971), Quadrophenia (1973) and Who Are You (1978). Of these numbers, Bargain, from Who's Next, was arguably the most unexpected, a cultish fan favorite that sets tender acoustic passages against thundering breaks -- a stormy, sincere love song that few besides Townshend would dare write. Baba O'Riley, with its "teenage wasteland" refrain handled by the crowd, was as close to a college fight song as the repertoire got. Real Me and 5:15, from the streets-of-London chronicle Quadrophenia, came late enough in the 19-song jam to let the crowd gasp at the tuneful energy still pouring off the stage. The band so completely reclaimed Won't Get Fooled Again, even the Nissan ad campaign using it fell out of sight and out of mind.
The Who encored with The Kids Are Alright, amended by Townshend with a sentimental coda tying the kids of old to children of today. They finished, given the set, with the only possible exit song: My Generation. A crowd stretching three generations, that had barely sat down all night, went home united by an experience with a morale: Age doesn't have to matter.