Something’s gotten into Pete Townshend. After spending several years wallowing as a post-rehab, grumpy old rock veteran, he seems to have finally gotten his spark back. Perhaps this has something to do with the recent release of his nearly thirty-years-in-the-making Lifehouse project, which may have lifted a creative load off his shoulders. Maybe it’s the simplified five-piece rock band format that the band has returned to after years of overblown stage productions. Whatever the reason is, if Sunday’s opening night performance of the Who’s latest reunion tour in Chicago is any indication, Townshend is back to his old ass-kicking self.
For a bunch of fiftysomethings, the Who still put on a powerful show, playing twenty songs in well over two hours, a feat which most bands half their age can’t even seem to perform. They also kept the crowd on their toes by sprinkling in a handful of rare gems with the standard greatest hits fare.
From the moment they walked on stage, Townshend was all smiles, carrying a digital video camera which he pointed towards the crowd at the New World Music Theater before turning it on himself and mugging for the lens. The band then launched into “I Can’t Explain,” followed closely by “Substitute,” which, despite the requisite mike twirling by Roger Daltrey and the windmilling arm of Townshend, seemed strangely sedate. Thankfully, things didn’t stay that way. The real pyrotechnics began when the veterans pulled out two rarely played gems, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “Relay.” It was during Townshend’s guitar solo on the later that the band really burst into life. After a brief detour into John Entwistle’s “My Wife,” the Who kicked into “Baba O’Riley.” It’s amazing that the lyric “It’s only teenage wasteland” can still electrify a crowd and raise the level of intensity after all these years.
Credit that intensity to Townshend, who attacked his guitar on each solo like a mortal enemy. The battle often took him down to his knees before popping him back up again like a marionette. It’s something often seen in old film footage of the Who, but has been absent from the stage for the last decade or so. He was enjoying himself so much he even teased the audience a bit, calling Chicago the twelfth largest city in the U.S. When the crowd booed, the guitarist smiled and shot back, “I fucking know what it is, don’t boo me! I know as much about Chicago as you.”
Next to Townshend’s bounding enthusiasm, Daltrey — normally the most spirited on stage of the remaining band members in the wake of Keith Moon’s death — seemed surprisingly low key. When he wasn’t singing, he often stood quietly nodding his head next to the drum riser, and when he did sing, he seemed to lack the hunger of his youth and strained to hit some of the high notes. He only seemed to kick in from time to time, most notably during “Baba O’Riley” (the harmonica solo at the end), “Getting in Tune” (which the band remodeled from a quiet ballad to an arena rock anthem) and “Pinball Wizard.” The extended funk-rock version of “Magic Bus” and the set-closing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were other high points for the vocalist.
The rest of the band provided a strong platform for Townshend to take off from. Entwistle was his usual stoic self, but shined during his own solos, especially in “5:15.” His fingers flew over the fret board, tapping, plucking and slapping, making it obvious where other low-end inventors like Les Claypool took their influence. Drummer Zak Starkey (son of Ringo) was excellent behind the kit and longtime keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick added the perfect flourishes to the sound.
The old Who volatility only reared its head once. When the main set was done, Daltrey and Townshend shared a poignant hug before Entwistle joined them for a bow. As the rest of the band walked offstage, Daltrey fumbled with a faulty mike stand. Suddenly turning and realizing he was alone on stage, he flashed the crowd an annoyed look, then said, “I’m going off so I can come back.” But by the time they returned to the stage to run though “The Kids are Alright,” “Let’s See Action,” and “My Generation,” he had cheered up, thanking Townshend for “writing so many wonderful songs.”
Judging by the crowd’s cheers throughout the night, they agreed with him.
I Can’t Explain
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
Don’t Know Myself
Getting in Tune
The Real Me
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Who Are You
Won’t Get Fooled Again
The Kids Are Alright
Let’s See Action