By Mark Guarino
Orchestras, Broadway musicals and career anniversaries have given The Who ample opportunities to re-package the past since drummer Keith Moon died in 1978. So the question Sunday at the New World Music Theatre was, would things be any different or would the audience be fooled again?
It depended what you came for. Indeed, surviving members Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle ran through hits like a waitress rattles off lunch specials. The familiar was ensured with carbon paper precision. Every windmill arm twist by Townshend and lassoing mic chord from Daltrey was a signal to every air guitarist in the crowd that everything was like it once was.
But of course, that wasn’t true. The Who lacked the ferocity it once had and many of the run-throughs of their FM rock staples sounded haggard. Often the band got lost in the middle of songs and it took a conscious undertaking to find a respectable way out. Daltrey had to be instructed through “Let’s See Action” by Townshend’s prodding cues and “Magic Bus” turned into a hazy, meandering lost trail, not even up to Dave Matthews Band standards. When Townshend joked they had “about 15 and a half minutes of rehearsal,” he wasn’t kidding.
The rewards of this recent incarnation were there, but you had to look for them. For one thing, this tour was the first time in almost a dozen years that The Who was a four-piece band again. Previous tours witnessed large-scale productions with antiseptic background singers and a large assembly of session men. With Ringo’s kid Zak Starkey on drums Sunday, The Who were back to basics as a quartet. Although keyboard regular John “Rabbit” Bundrick added flourishes at the side, the core four had only each other to rely on and the interplay was often remarkably fresh.
The night belonged most to Townshend who sounded reborn as a guitarist. He played with his guitar rather than just played it, chopping out chords on early Mod hits (“Can’t Explain”) like an overanxious kid, to flashing a Hendrix homage by dropping to his knees and playing between his legs (“My Generation”). A strident stylist, Townshend led a full-charge rock attack on “5:15” and then followed it with the delicate exploration of a jazz player. “You know folks — why should I care,” he sarcastically quipped the song’s famous coda. But for once, he had no reason not to.
The Who are on tour this summer with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes, who are preceding them in each city by a day (Page and the Crowes played the World Saturday). The dual groups are sharing equipment, roadies and a set to minimize costs, although none of that savings trickled down to the consumer. The average ticket price for either show was close to $100.