By Mark Guarino
Seeing a concert by The Who in 2007 is like dropping in on an old friend you shared good times with, weathered bad times with and came out of the long haul older but wiser.
“A whole lot has been said about bands of our era, whether we should still be here or not,” Pete Townshend said. He didn’t know the answer, either. “As long as we’re here together,” he said with a shrug.
That blind faith is what makes The Who worthy but not great in their current incarnation. This tour, a continuation of their first leg of shows last fall, stopped at the Sears Centre Monday with no greater ambition than to congregate around Who songs, a passion that lately seems to be summoned more by audience than band.
If that sounds too negative, take it from Townshend who admitted as much mid-way through the concert as he and his long-time bandmate Roger Daltrey slugged through classic rock milestones like “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Pinball Wizard.” “Here we are again,” he said. It was true. Enduring Who trademarks like Townshend’s windmill guitar strokes and Daltrey’s lassoing microphone twirls have diminished.
What kept the concert from just another pointless exercise in marquee moneymaking were the many new songs (nearly half the 24-song setlist) the band chose to include. True, the majority of the crowd tuned out, but it was their loss. Unlike most bands of their era, The Who’s late career album “Endless Wire” (Universal Republic) is ambitious, very strange and always tuneful. It’s to their credit that “Fragments” locked into place easily on the heels of songs (“I Can’t Explain,” “The Seeker,” “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”) from their earliest proto-punk days in the mid-1960’s. Instead of a revisiting, the new songs sounded like a continuation.
Monday’s return fared better than The Who’s most recent stop on this tour last September at the United Center. That time Daltrey ran off the stage after losing his voice during “My Generation.” This time around he sang the same song with renewed gusto as Townshend and band opened it up further, the guitarist’s jagged riffs and surprising twists sounding fresh and inspired as they eventually blended with “Cry If You Want.”
Back in the day when Daltrey and Townshend shared the stage with John Entwistle and Keith Moon, rock’s mightiest rhythm section, Townshend cut an awkward but threatening stage presence. As an older man, he struck similar poses but seemed more awestruck by the fact he still gets to do it. He is accessible than most rock veterans, frequently playing small club dates with his girlfriend Rachel Fuller and maintaining a blog (petetownshend-whohe.blogspot.com) where his commentary spans everything from his childhood to the Britney Spears meltdown.
He remains a seeker. Shrieking visuals were meant to make the songs larger than life, but they were distracting and unnecessary as this band has a catalog of songs that remain totems of rock on their own. After “Baba O’Riley,” one of rock’s mightiest juggernauts, Townshend accepted the crowd’s praise and then admitted that not only does he not know what the song is about, the song has little connection with him anymore. The thrill of performing it is like a public service he is happy to oblige. “It means more for you than it does for us,” he said.