On their first try at the Garden, The Who got only as far as "I Can't Explain" and "Substitute" before Keith Moon fell off his chair, a victim of the flu (or so we were told). The concert was then cancelled, but it seemed doomed from the start, what with a noxious first set by the Steve Gibbons band and a row of seats going up in blazes. Told to return on April 1 with stub in hand, the crowd exited sullenly but without incident - sobered, perhaps by fire. Three weeks later, the Who were back playing hard and fast for a demanding audience whose appetite had been more than sufficiently whetted.
How do the Who keep on going like this year after year? At one point on The Who By Numbers, Roger Daltrey sings "Back in the studio - take 276! You know this used to be fun." For the 13 year-old Who, their appearance in the Garden could well have been performance no. 2760; I had my doubts about how much fun they have, and in turn I, would have. Presumably, there are just so many times you can do "Pinball Wizard" before feeling like a human juke box. The way out oft he dilemma could have been reinterpret the old stuff or stick to new material. The Who took neither tack. With the exception of a few long jams, they stuck faithfully to greatest hits, most oft hem culled from Tommy and The Who Sell out. However, the golden oldies weren't dished out i a bored or perfunctory way. It may reveal the egotism of Townshend or the fanatical devotion of the others, but they still seem to be in love with their standard works.
If any group is equipped to do battle with the forbidding Boston garden, it's the Who. What else but Townshend's power chords, Daltrey's full-bodied screech or Moon's inspired bashing could begin to fill that void? Befitting the scale of the Garden, both the Who's musical trappings and their stage presence appeared outsized. The leonine Daltrey struts impressively, and Townshend, barely sublimating his fury, strikes a mythic stance as he flails away at his guitar or, with legs apart, holds it sacramentally over his head. They pose for the whole arena while delivering cuts of monolithic directness and impact, each with its own fiery climax and denouement.
And therein lies a problem. After the first couple of songs have worked up to thundering climaxes, the musical stakes have been raised so high that there's no place to go, no momentum to build. The evening turns into an athletic contest as the Who struggle to maintain the same energy they opened with. In order to take us higher up the scale of frenzy they must resort not to musical means but to elaborate stage effects. As the tension of "We're Not Going To Take" rises, multi-colored beams radiate out from the stage and, finally, huge kliegs light up the audience. Even this trick, though, has to be used twice. The ultimate solution, of course, is to smash your guitar - a task, that Townshend performed only dutifully at the end.
But if the Who didn't manage a catharsis, at least they weren't blasé, as well they could be given their established reputation. Much of the Who's best work is informed by both an ironic distance from a compassionate identification with teenagers. At the Garden, that compassion surfaced in the form of spirited renditions of classic, nearly moldy, Who material. Their latest album, By Numbers, is about getting old. Townshend and the Who are in touch enough to know that the kids standing on their seats - who have gone without pizza for a month so they could be there - don't want to hear about that.