Nobody knew it at the time, but when the Who recorded “Quadrophenia” 39 years ago, the band was starting down the slow road to collapse.
Pete Townshend did his best studio work on this teenage, schizoid rock opera. But onstage, drummer Keith Moon’s experiment with animal tranquilizers led to a 19-year-old fan getting a star turn. Even when Moon was conscious, the band found it hard to play alongside pre-taped loops. There would be two more Who records, but within five years Moon would be dead and the group drifting.
Which is what makes the Who’s current touring incarnation — which pays tribute to “Quadrophenia” by playing the 1973 rock opera followed by a handful of hits — such a pleasant surprise. With bassist John Entwhistle’s 2002 death, the Who are a duo, guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey. And Townshend, one of rock’s great loner heroes, has never been predictable when it comes to the band’s legacy. He’s offered watered-down stagings of “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” with attention-grabbing guests (anybody miss Billy Idol?) and his hearing problems have often left him strumming on an acoustic guitar.
Not on Friday night.
The current Who is a working band. Drummer Zak Starkey’s powerful, dynamic runs do offer comparisons to Moon. But otherwise, the backing group — which includes multiple horns, keyboards, and Townshend’s younger brother, Simon, on guitar — is a largely anonymous group of players who stand almost motionless as they carry out a professional task. Which is to keep the spotlight on Townshend and Daltrey.
In recent years, the singer has struggled at times to hit his former highs. Friday night, Daltrey was spot on, whether on “Helpless Dancer” or screaming the dramatic conclusion of “Love, Reign o’er Me.” He also spent much of the show slowly unbuttoning his shirt, revealing a surprisingly buff, 68-year-old chest.
The real star, as always, was Townshend. At 67, he moves well, whirling and stomping with combat boots, black pants and, what else, a gingham shirt. He even leapt a couple of times during a blistering encore of “Baba O’Riley.”
Thankfully, Townshend spent only a portion of the night on acoustic, largely sticking to a trio of Stratocasters. You can feel the difference when he’s electric. A masterful technician, Townshend can play melodic, bluesy lines, fat licks worthy of a Woodstock flashback, and even two-fingered taps a la Eddie Van Halen. But it is his sense of rhythm and space that defines the Who’s sound, the driving chords that open “Quadrophenia” on “The Real Me.”
As the music played, video screens offered a steady stream of sometimes bizarrely patched together images, from Elvis Presley lying in state to Fidel Castro to the bombing of the Twin Towers. But whining about this “We Didn’t Start the Fire” version of history is a little like complaining about a fine meal because the waiter didn’t fold your napkins right.
One saving grace of the technology: It allows dead bandmates to be revived, which was done effectively Friday night. We were treated to Moon’s vocal turn on “Bell Boy” and a lengthy, synched, extended solo from John Entwistle on “5.15.” Townshend seemed to take particular delight in this, grinning when “The Ox” was gone and blasting off a series of windmills.
Daltrey, by this point, was down to a single button on his shirt.