On its first U.S. tour since a »farewell« in 1982, The Who celebrated 25 years in the rock-and-roll business last night at Veterans Stadium. The group that calls itself the »World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band« spent nearly 3 1/2 hours trying to live up to the tag.
The Who, expanded from four to 14 pieces for this retrospective, faced legitimate questions at the start of the evening: Could Roger Daltrey, whose clarion voice was a trademark during the band's heyday, still reach the high, commanding leads? Could guitarist Pete Townshend, saddled with permanent hearing loss, replicate his fabled hammering intensity while playing acoustic guitar? Could the lean Who sound be credibly broadened with a five-piece horn section?
Most important: Would the songs hold up? The rock audience has heard just about every possible derivation of the Who sound since the band's influential period - so just how special now are such songs as »Magic Bus« and »I Can See for Miles« and »Baba O'Riley«?
Judging by the response, very special indeed. About every selection in the 40-song set was greeted with huge roars of approval - even those from Townshend's solo material and unusual covers, like Daltrey's version of the Roy Orbison chestnut »Love Hurts.«
If nothing else, this blistering whirlwind of hits - from the early »My Generation« to the synthesizer-driven »Who Are You« to Townshend's uptempo jump, »Face the Face« - showed how much of the rock-and-roll blueprint can be traced back to The Who.
As for the other questions: Daltrey belted the band's anthems with a vengeful chip on his shoulder, as if to blow away any doubts about his powers with sheer muscle. Townshend relented and played the electric guitar more than once, even unleashing a few of the sweeping arm motions he calls »windmills« on a pulsating cover of the old blues song »I'm a Man.« The first one brought blood from his fingertips, but didn't diminish his zest for the music - later, he was hammering chords with an unstoppable fervor.
But the poorly utilized five-piece horn section, added no doubt as insurance against possible sagging energy levels from the principals, didn't contribute to the mix. Reinforcing the thick guitar chords of »Won't Get Fooled Again,« for example, the horns sounded redundant, as though shipped in from some Atlantic City »rock celebration.« Horn lines designed to ornament the Tommy suite intruded, creating the sound of a fanfare when none was needed.
Throughout the show, The Who paid tribute to the blues. In addition to the phenomenally charged journey through »I'm a Man,« songs like »Magic Bus« and even »My Wife« reflected the blues influence that is at the root of The Who's music. Townshend's solo on »My Wife« was an exemplary blend of blues language and rock emotion, an inspiration most guitarists would be proud to have played after weeks in the studio.
Even the gaudy »Goodbye Sister Disco« evaporated into a blues-based exploration: After repetitions of the choruses, Townshend launched a series of acoustic guitar riffs that formed the foundation for duets with Daltrey.
It was more than merely the sounds of survival that kept the crowd on its feet for most of the show. Townshend worked to wholly rearrange some of the songs, and was clearly charged by the possibilities. The medium-tempo anthems often identified with the band - »We're Not Gonna Take It«; »Love Reign O'er Me,« from Quadrophenia, and the rousing »Won't Get Fooled Again,« which was introduced by a video montage - sounded at once familiar and fresh, as though the band was rediscovering the truth behind the messages after years of dormancy and, before that, perhaps an equal number of years of rote repetition.
Other highlights: A wired, almost frantic reading of »Substitute« and a near-perfect »I Can See for Miles« marred only by off-pitch background vocals. Following a nonstop collection of familiar Who themes in the show's second set, Daltrey dug deep to bring new pain to the ballad »Behind Blue Eyes« and the first encore, a treatment of »Hey Joe.« And Townshend's unerringly precise rhythm guitar, present all evening, enlivened the finale, »Summertime Blues."
The show repeats tonight. It is sold out.