Getting the most obvious business over with first, the Who launched the night with a spirited rendering of "Tommy," their 1969 saga of the deaf, dumb and blind kid who's exalted as a messiah. It's a work the group grew tired of years ago, but it raised Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and (the late) Keith Moon to the level of superstars in the United States.
Last night's reading was abridged to 40 minutes (from the album-length 75 minutes) but managed to touch on most all the hits, from "It's a Boy" to ''Amazing Journey" (with Daltrey tossing his corded mike and kinda catching it, just like the old days). "Acid Queen" was nailed hard by new drummer Simon Philips (Moon would be pleased), and "Pinball Wizard" seemed improved with a jazzy five-piece horn section and bassist Entwistle's cute allusions to the Beatles' "Day Tripper." Lacing "Wizard" more, a giant silver pinball balloon suddenly materialized over the heads of the audience.
Biting the bullet, the band even did "Welcome to the Camp" (a "Tommy" number Daltrey swore he wouldn't perform), then "See Me, Feel Me" and the finale of "We're Not Gonna Take It," with the bathed-in-white-light audience singing along at the top of its lungs, almost drowning out the band. That was no small feat, given the massive speaker stacks the group had hidden behind rotating pop-art murals.
While their reading of the rock opera was certainly tight and tuneful, the augmented (15-piece) Who seemed to enjoy themselves more in the material that followed. Appropriate to the 25th-anniversary celebration theme that's made this summer reunion possible, there were lots of glances back to the early days of the band, before it had made much of a name on this side of the Atlantic.
"In those days we didn't have any originals, so we'd copy Chicago blues songs," Daltrey explained before launching into a gutsy blues wailing of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man."
Just as at the Who's Glens Falls, N.Y., preview performance on June 21, Townshend traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric six-stringer at this point of the set. Moreover, he started to "windmill" strum and hit screechy high-neck notes just as he used to do as a showboating youth of 20.
(A couple of months ago, you might recall, the now 44-year-old Townshend proclaimed he "couldn't" play electric guitar anymore because it hurt his ears. So he lied. Or he's making a supreme sacrifice. His hearing loss is your entertainment gain. About the only thing Pete isn't doing anymore is using a mike stand as a guitar slide.)
One aim in doing all that early material is to open ears and minds to the fact there was a Who before "Tommy." (A multi-disc retrospective covering its formative period is in the works.) Most telling last night was the group's rendering of "Tattoo" from its brilliant 1967 "The Who Sell Out" album. It's a baroque trumpet-scored song of youthful rebellion that showed the way, setting it off on a grand, pop-operatic writing jag.
Daltrey last night expressed his special love of "I Can See for Miles," a psychedelic mind-blower also from the "Sell Out" LP. But the singer looked pained during his performance of the song. (Couldn't hear the monitors? Felt
himself hit clunkers? Stop, you're both right!)
The group's second set, running about 100 minutes, hit the stage rumbling at 10 p.m. with "Magic Bus." I had some problems following the rambling Townshend discourse that went with the song, suggesting they couldn't scrape together "100 pounds" to buy a bus. Maybe it's a rap the group used to deliver way back when.
Its anthem "Baba O'Riley," better known as "Teen-Age Wasteland," got the minions yelling again - "Let's get together before we get much older" - followed by the Who's original rabble-rouser on the same theme, "My Generation."
In his solo turns, my main man Mr. Townshend refrained from doing his charming new single ("A Friend Is a Friend") - drat. He opted instead to hit the harder stuff like "Rough Boys," "Second Hand Love" and "Face The Face" from older solo albums, stuff that plays better to the upper decks.
Entwistle took his spotlight turns with (what else?) "Boris the Spider" and "My Wife."
Daltrey shone on his reading of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's "Love Hurts" (which he dedicated to Roy Orbison), "Love Reign O'er Me," the kinda dated "Sister Disco" and "Join Together," which was dramatized with a giant Union Jack flapping behind the band.