AUBURN HILLS, MICH.-- The Who don't tour because they need to anymore. They do it because they want to. And they wanted to open a 10-city North American trek Tuesday (Oct. 21) night in Detroit, a city that needs all the help it can get.
The Motor City's always been there for the fabled British rockers and with this show what's left of the graying, groundbreaking group -- muscle-voiced singer Roger Daltrey and guitar maestro Pete Townshend -- returned the favor, donating proceeds from the concert to two local charities, and giving the kind of fiery performance for which the '70s rock legends were once known.
The locale evoked more than the usual memories from the former quartet, who lost drummer Keith Moon 30 years ago and bassist John Entwistle, who kicked the bucket hours before their 2002 tour kicked off. Townshend, who was in fine form all night, noted it was a Detroit radio station that helped give them their first Stateside hit and recalled their first gigs in nearby Ann Arbor and a high school in suburban Southfield. "Then we went to the Monterey Pop Festival and it was all downhill from there," Townshend quipped.
Of course, the opposite was true. Townshend turned his teen rage and gnawing adult sense of disillusionment into a succession of brilliant, trailblazing albums that explored everything rampant commercialism ("The Who Sell Out"), celebrities as false gods ("Tommy") and the notion of the individual vs. the group dynamic set in the early '60s of his youth ("Quadrophenia"), timeless themes that remain timely today.
By 1982, Townshend felt a Moonless Who was spent and was unwilling or unable to try to live up to the legacy he helped shape. His solo albums had eclipsed the bands. The Who bid farewell that year with a listless, ill-advised tour, then regrouped in 1989 for a tour that seemed almost as pointless, other than the big paycheck at the end, with a performance of their rock opera "Tommy" as the centerpiece, but backup musicians doing all the work. It wasn't until after Townshend found new life with a musical theater interpretation of the story of a deaf, dumb and blind messiah that he found a portal back into the Who's creative vision. He re-envisioned "Quadrophenia" for the concert stage and it was obvious that the spark, and his trademark windmill, had returned.
The result is a band that rediscovered the joy of reinvigorating its considerable body of work, songs like "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley," which found new audiences through new means, including the "CSI" TV series, TV commercials and the popular "Rock Band" video game.
Even after bassist Entwistle died from a cocaine-induced heart attack and the handwringing that followed, Townshend agreed to continue with the always ready Daltrey, backed by essentially the same musicians who punched new life into the "Quadrophenia" songs. It includes stoic journeyman bassist Pino Palladeno, hastily recruited to fill Entwistle's spot eight years ago, longtime keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick, Townshend's younger brother Simon on guitar and backing vocals and the explosive drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's Moon-trained son.
The half Who's 2006 album "Endless Wire" was their first in a quarter century and it aimed high even if it fell a little short. As solid as their Detroit performance was that year, it in no way matched the intensity and sheer sense of celebration that marked Tuesday's 22-song, 2-hour show. Daltrey was in particularly fine voice for a guy whose voice sometimes is the worse for wear (the inevitable hoarseness crept in near the end). A slim Townshend played like a caged animal from the opening strains of "I Can't Expllain," and later admitted to the 10,000-member crowd that he'd been up since 7 a.m. "waiting for this."
They treated longtime fans with concert rarities such as "Tattoo," the 1967 ode to innocence that has a new resonance in a day when body art and piercings are the norm not the exception, "Who's Next" gem "Getting In Tune" and the dated "Who Are You" social commentary "Sister Disco." The real thrills came when the band went into full, rumbling throttle on warhorses "5:15," with Townshend leading a spirited instrumental jam, and a newly expanded "My Generation," their 44-year-old signature song, its newly constructed peaks and valleys giving Townshend and Starkey ample room to weave the former's sinewy guitar bluster with the latter's drum pyrotechnics.
The encore included a playful, exploratory "Magic Bus," complete with Daltrey and Townshend's negotiators' repartee (Pete changed the "100 English pounds" line to dollars, noting it was "the only currency anybody ever gives me"), and a "Tommy" medley (Townshend restarted "Pinball Wizard" when he realized he was using a wrongly tuned guitar) that played like a payoff for fans after the sustained dynamism of the show's second half. It ended appropriately and symbolically with "Tea & Theatre," the touching "Endless Wire" ballad that serves as the theme song for the Who two's closing chapters, a fitting answer to "The Seeker," played early (and well) in the show, and its famous observation that "I won't get to get what I'm after 'til the day I die."
That's probably what it's going to take to put an end to one of rock's most enduring forces. They may still sing in "My Generation" that they hope they die before they get old, but Tuesday's tour opening performance showed that the surviving half of the Who can be every bit as musically and thematically vital as they want to be.
1. I Can't Explain
2. The Seeker
3. Getting In Tune
5. Who Are You
6. Behind Blue Eyes
8. Baba O'Riley
10. Sister Disco
11. Mike Post Theme
12. Eminence Front
14. Love Reign O'er Me
15. My Generation
16. Won't Get Fooled Again
17. Magic Bus
18. Pinball Wizard
19. Amazing Journey/Sparks
20. See Me Feel Me
21. Listening to You
22. Tea & Theatre