The Who at the United Center, 2006

By Mark Guarino

Pete Townshend’s talkin’ about his generation.

Oops, make that his “aging, creaking, dying generation.” That’s how he introduced “My Generation” at the United Center Monday. The definitive rebel yell by The Who can be a tricky one to confront when you’ve past 60, especially with lyrics that hope you die before you get old.

This current Who tour shares many of the routine hallmarks of other recent tours by bands of its era: the tickets are high, the band roster is reconfigured, the hits are predictable and there is scrolling video of the band in their leaner, meaner years, perhaps to distract the viewer from focusing too much on what they look like today.

Certainly the tone was set from the start that this was a band set on indifference. The Who was the definitive primal four-piece rock band, the one on this road trip was expanded to six players, which couldn’t help but make the music feel diluted. Bassist Pino Palladino is the replacement for John Entwistle who died unexpectedly on tour in 2002 and of course Zak Starkey has long been keeping time for the late Keith Moon. A major distraction was Simon Townshend who played guitar and doubled his brother Pete’s vocals. He was used mostly as a mask for his brother and more often than not, was the voice the crowd heard on almost every song.

The two-hour, 25-song show was frontloaded with songs from their early British Invasion days to their synthesizer arena rock. Daltrey, 62, looking particularly hunched over, struggled to sing with the gusto the songs required. On “A Real Good Looking Boy,” a sedate Elvis tribute the band unveiled in 2004, was inconsequential. It took Townshend, 61, to liven up the setlist, his chunky power chords still propulsive as ever.

What separates this tour from the oldies revues of the band’s past is the time spent with “Endless Wire” (Universal), a new album — The Who’s first in 24 years — due Oct. 31. It came as a surprise that the songs were effective and fresh, even though they hit upon familiar Who themes. A six-song “mini-opera” titled “Wire & Glass” ranted about the horrors of war and the downside of stardom. One song, “Mirror Door,” namechecked fallen stars of the past (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Curtis Mayfield represented Chicago), a fitting tribute except to Doris Day, who happens to be alive.

Strangely, it took for Daltrey to lose his voice for the show to throw away the script and finally get interesting. He abruptly left the stage leaving “My Generation,” his definitive song, for Townshend to sing. This became a major moment. Townshend transformed the song completely until only the lyrics were familiar (adding with a scream, “I can’t die/we can’t die!). His playing was unleashed and every moment dazzled.

Townshend later joked about the sudden jolt of energy, telling the audience to imagine the band had emerged from backstage after they “had oxygen, snorted cocaine, drank brandy and all the other things that rock stars do.” Of course, he just demonstrated that the excess of the band’s glory years isn’t necessarily to stay youthful. A little inspiration helps too.

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