The Who has the great fortune and great misfortune of not only having a reputation as one of the greatest live bands in rock history, but being well-documented as such on both record and film. Monterey Pop, Woodstock, “Live at Leeds,” “The Kids Are Alright”: All of them offer hard proof of just how explosive (sometimes literally) the band could be. When its “The Who Hits 50!” tour finally reached TD Garden on Monday after last year’s date was canceled due to illness, it was understandable that the show couldn’t reach the same heights, given that, well, the Who has been hitting 50 for two years now.
Of course, there was the other matter, acknowledged promptly in the video backdrop to “Who Are You” (here, as on television, a tried-and-true show opener), which tacitly acknowledged the Who will always be considered to be Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and fallen comrades John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Monday’s lineup, with twice as many musicians, suffered from bloat; a band that once got on fine without more than an occasional synthesizer augmenting a power trio plus vocals shouldn’t require three keyboards and a second guitar. It certainly weighed down “Pictures of Lily,” turning what should be a spry, cheeky, power-chorded anthem of sexual frustration into one of the evening’s biggest dips in energy.
On the other hand, the band did “The Real Me” justice, Townshend’s guitar snapping sharply to form and Zak Starkey attacking his drums with gusto. Late-period songs “You Better You Bet” and “Eminence Front” were both well-served, the latter’s dense arena art-funk playing nicely against Townshend’s toughest vocal of the night. And the tempo-shifted coda to “My Generation” brought real fire, with Townshend hacking at the rhythm chords that had been largely hidden during the first four songs.
That’s when Townshend, Daltrey, and Starkey shone best, when they were brought to the fore instead of merely fading back into the band. Daltrey’s muscular vocals helped elevate “Bargain” and “The Real Me,” while the percussive steel and wood of Townshend’s acoustic guitar remained the lead instrument in the mix of “I’m One” even after the band joined him.
It was when their spotlight-grabs coincided that the Who recalled something akin to its storied past. Two of the best happened to be the thematic instrumentals from the band’s rock operas. “Underture” (from “Tommy”) worked terrifically, even as it was largely just Townshend bouncing chords off of the other players while Starkey provided ominous thunder. And as the drummer provided the majesty needed, Townshend essentially conducted the culmination of “Quadrophenia” themes in “The Rock” with his rhythm guitar. As they segued to “Love, Reign O’er Me,” Daltrey joined in, and the Who surged together once more.
With her spacious, borderline quizzical songs and a cool softness about her, opener Tal Wilkenfeld projected an intriguing imperturbability even when the music of her band rose around her. The bassist-vocalist seemed to sing at a disinterested remove, as if observing the narrators of her songs instead of inhabiting them.
With Tal Wilkenfeld. At TD Garden, MondayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.